Ingvar Kamprad is not a familiar name… but his initials, and those of the farm and village where he grew up, are. Ingvar Kamprad grew upon the family farm, Elmtaryd, near the village of Agunnaryd. And in 1943, the company he started at the age of 17, which sold a random mixture of goods by local delivery and, later, by mail order, was called IKEA.
The story of how Kamprad went from pens and picture frames moving around locally on a milk van, to one of the richest people on the planet is instructive: not just for entrepreneurs, but for anyone who manages a part of an organisation.
Kamprad was born on the family farm in 1926, in the southern Swedish province of Småland. His first retail goods were matches, which he resold to his neighbours when he was five. He moved on to catching local fish and picking local lingonberries, and sending them by bus to his buyer. He founded IKEA in 1943 while working at a full time job, and it was only in 1946, when he completed his national service, that he saw the opportunity to move IKEA towards being solely a furniture retailer.
By the 1970s, IKEA had stores across Europe, and by the end of the century, it was in 30 countries, with a mailing list for its famous fat catalogue, of 100 million. Now retired and a tax exile in Switzerland, Kamprad eats modestly, flies economy, and haggles with market traders.
It would be wrong to ignore what Kamprad has described as “The Greatest Mistake of My Life” – his early association with Swedish pro-Nazi fascists. The extent of his involvement and the degree of his remorse is something for historians and Kamprad to consider. In 2001, IKEA opened for business in Israel.
Five Defining Ideas
In reading a story of Kamprad’s life, I have spotted five defining ideas that seem to me to have made all of the difference. None of them is exclusive to the retail industry, much less to the furniture trade. If only my father (a near contemporary of Kamprad’s and also in the furniture trade)… But then, we are who we are, and I wouldn’t swap for a moment.
Principle 1: Customer’s Shoes
IKEA is famous, among other things, for its cafes. On the first day of opening his first furniture warehouse, Kamprad promised every customer coffee and a bun. To get there, they would have to travel a long way, in harsh, cold weather conditions. When he opened the door on that morning, there were over 1,000 people patiently waiting.
Principle 2: Thrift
IKEA is also famous for self-assembly, self-service, and minimal packaging. Each of these is designed to reduce costs to IKEA and so to their customers. Kamprad was always, and still remains, conscious of every last Krona, Euro, Pound or Swiss Franc.
Principle 3: Resilience
In the 1950s, Kamprad’s competitors became jealous of IKEA’s growing success. They struck back with unsavoury tactics that would have crushed a less determined person. They pressured suppliers to not serve IKEA, and they got the company banned from trade fairs. Kamprad’s resilience and ingenuity turned these potentially fatal setbacks into triumphs: he started to design and build his own furniture, owning the whole supply chain, and he bought his own exhibition centres.
Principle 4: Brand Identity
It is easy to think of the distinctive blue and yellow colours and block capital font of the IKEA logo as its brand. Kamprad did not. He said that the product range was the company’s identity. And I think he was right. Whether it is the distinctive simplicity of the Billy bookcase or the cutesy accessories like the Spöka nightlight, we recognise IKEA products whenever we go visiting.
Principle 5: Innovation
IKEA has not stood still. Not only is their product range frequently refreshed and the showrooms re-dressed often, but IKEA has constantly innovated in the way it goes to market and delivers its services.