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How Kamprad became king of IKEA

Swede Ingvar Kamprad began with two empty hands to become one of the richest people in the world – as the founding owner of furniture chain store IKEA. Here’s his story, from farm life to flat-packs.

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Ingvar Kamprad as a young boy (left). Photo: IKEA

How Kamprad became king of IKEA

Swede Ingvar Kamprad began with two empty hands to become one of the richest people in the world – as the founding owner of furniture chain store IKEA. Here’s his story, from farm life to flat-packs.

Rural childhood

Ingvar Feodor Kamprad was born on 30 March 1926, on a small farm called Elmtaryd near the village of Agunnaryd, in the Swedish province of Småland. To most present-day Swedes, the date and the names, in a famously rural region, resound of harsher times, when Sweden was agrarian and poor. They speak of hard work, frugality and egalitarianism rooted in shared poverty – values which would eventually enter the IKEA ethos.

Humble beginnings

Kamprad began his career at the age of six, selling matches. When just ten, he criss-crossed the neighbourhood on his bicycle, selling Christmas decorations, fish and pencils.

At 17, in 1943, Kamprad’s father rewarded him with a small sum of money for doing well in school, despite being dyslexic. With it, Ingvar founded a business named IKEA, an abbreviation for Ingvar Kamprad from Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd, his boyhood home.

Ingvar Kamprad at the opening of the first IKEA store in Swedish Älmhult.

Photo: IKEA

Shaping IKEA’s flat-pack concept

Two years after starting IKEA, Kamprad began using milk trucks to deliver his goods. In 1947, he started selling furniture made by local manufacturers. By 1955, manufacturers began boycotting IKEA, protesting against Kamprad’s low prices. This forced him to design items in-house.

Kamprad was also behind the simple, yet revolutionary innovation that is the flat pack. He began selling IKEA products in flat-pack form, from his own warehouses. Thus the basic IKEA concept – simple, affordable flat-pack furniture, designed, distributed and sold in-house – was complete.

The driving idea behind IKEA was, and is, that anyone should be able to afford stylish, modernist furniture. Kamprad felt he was not just cutting costs and making money, but serving the people as well.

Kamprad’s business grew. And grew. IKEA expanded throughout Sweden, to Norway and Denmark, via Germany to continental Europe, and on to the ends of the world. When IKEA opened in Shanghai, 80,000 people visited the store. Today, there are over 300 IKEA stores in the world – in 38 countries. All this time, Kamprad has never borrowed money or issued a stock.

Are the anecdotes true?

Anecdotes about Kamprad abound. When his father complained that Ingvar slept late in the morning, Ingvar got himself an alarm clock, set it for six o’clock, and yanked away the off button. According to Kamprad, we should all divide our lives ‘into 10-minute units, and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.’

Until his death in 2018, Kamprad continued to travel the world to visit new IKEA stores. He flew economy class, called his employees ‘co-workers’, encouraged everyone to dress informally, stayed in cheap hotels and even replaced bottles from the hotel room mini-bar with cheap bottles bought in local supermarkets. He drove an old Volvo. He gave no interviews.

Critics of these stories say they seem intended to reinforce the company’s no-nonsense brand and encourage cost-awareness among company staff. They point out that Kamprad may have been the world’s richest man, that he owned several lavish houses around the world, and that it would be ludicrous to assume a man of such wealth would not have used any of it for private purposes.

At the top of the rich list

IKEA’s elaborate ownership structure, with several off-shore trust funds that were controlled but not strictly owned by Kamprad himself, made it impossible to establish just how rich he was, but estimates frequently put Kamprad between number 1 and number 11 on the world rich list.

IKEA has dodged anti-corporate sentiments remarkably well. Few allegations of poor labour practices, bad environmental policies or arrogant customer service have tarnished the brand name.

IKEA’s yellow sign on a blue façade can be seen all around the world. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Room for further expansion?

Kamprad has been married twice. In his first marriage, to Kerstin Wadling, he adopted a daughter, Annika Kihlbom. In the other, to Margaretha Stennert, he had three sons: Peter, Jonas and Mathias. The three sons gradually succeeded their father, who had served as senior advisor at IKEA.

Is there room for expansion? Sure. After all, so far only a quarter of the world’s nations have access to an IKEA store.

Last updated: 16 January 2020

Jonas Fredén

Jonas Fredén is a freelance journalist. He has worked for Finanstidningen (Finance news), Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s public service radio broadcaster, and the daily Dagens Nyheter.