Kamprad turned a tiny business into a company worth many billions of dollars. He leaves behind a complicated legacy that includes ties to Swedish fascism.
Born into a poor family, Kamprad sold matchbooks, fish, and pencils from his bike before building a furniture business of unprecedented global scope. With over 350 stores around the world, Ikea now consumes 1% of the world’s lumber and cotton, earning it $38.6 billion in revenue last year. His breakthrough came in 1956, as he watched an employee–presumably Gillis Lundgren, who shaped the company’s early design–remove the legs of a table to transport it. (It’s worth noting that another Swede had invented a flat-pack chair a few years earlier.) By designing furniture to be “flat packed” in a box, Kamprad and Gillis realized it would be both cheaper and easier to transport, whether across the Atlantic to a store to just across town to a customer’s home. They could ship 10 times the amount of tables and desks on a truck than competitors for the same amount of gas. It was an insight that changed his industry.Kamprad built a fabled reputation for frugality–as The New York Times points out, he was known for driving a modest Volvo and flying economy class, even arriving at a farmer’s market late to get the best deals on vegetables. He reportedly wore second-hand clothing and often ate at the Ikea cafe. Of course, that was only part of the story–perhaps even an ingenious PR play. His multimillion-dollar home overlooked Lake Geneva, he also drove a Porsche, and owned vineyards in Provence. He was also criticized in his time for tax dodging, and indeed, Ikea is run as a nonprofit even today.
However, it was Kamprad’s uncovered ties to the fascist movement that garnered the most criticism. After the death of Swedish fascist Per Engdahl, reporters discovered that Kamprad had recruited and fundraised for the Swedish Nazi movement–and he continued to be friends with Engdahl after the movement ended in 1942. He would go on to call his involvement something that he “bitterly” regretted and “the greatest mistake” of his life.
As for Ikea, it will almost certainly continue to grow in Kamprad’s absence. The company plans to nearly double its earnings by 2020.
This article first appeared in www.fastcodesign.com
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