Commentary

Ingvar Kamprad, Who Retooled Retailing With IKEA, 91

Ingvar Kamprad, a dyslexic Swedish farm boy who became one of the world’s richest men by founding IKEA when he was 17, building it into a global empire that now has 355 stores in 29 countries, and leaving millions of frustrated consumers bearing a fistful of mismatched screws in his wake, died over the weekend at age 91.

“The comedian Amy Poehler once claimed that IKEA was Swedish for ‘argument.' If so, Ingvar Kamprad — the “IK” in IKEA — was responsible for countless do-it-yourself assembly quarrels in a world he furnished with cheap, simple and sometimes disposable bookcases, tables and sofas,” writes Rick Hampson for USA Today.

MarketWatch’s Mike Murphy compiles a bunch of tweets that riff off of that theme, including this cartoon that prompts him to write, “Hopefully, Ingvar Kamprad had a good sense of humor.”

He certainly had a precocious sense of markup.

“Born in Småland in 1926, Kamprad was 5 when he contracted with an aunt who lived in Stockholm to buy boxes of matches in bulk, selling them locally at a huge profit, according to The New Yorker. By his final year in middle school, he had expanded into Christmas ornaments, fish, lingonberries, and garden seeds,” writes Gwynn Guilford for Quartz in a piece that has eight additional “intriguing facts” about the frugal mogul, including the fact that he had been involved with Swedish fascist movement in the 1940s and ’50s. 

Kamprad later said that it was “a part of my life which I bitterly regret” but his “Nazi past followed [him] … to his death,” Derek Hawkins reports for the Washington Post, detailing both the charges against him as well as his — and others’ — defense of what he claimed was an indiscretion of his youth.

IKEA continued to grow regardless of the controversy.

“Since its founding in 1943, the company has transformed the way we think about how we shop for furniture (out: catalogues, in: mazelike warehouses), how we put it together (ourselves) and how it looks (sleek, not stodgy.) With its clean lines and practical pieces, Ikea has outfitted millions of college apartments and brought a Scandinavian aesthetic into everyday homes,” writes Abha Bhattarai, also for the Washington Post.

“Few people can claim to have genuinely revolutionized retail,” Neil Saunders, managing director GlobalData Retail tells Bhattarai. “Ingvar Kamprad did.”

The BBC points out that “Kamprad is reported to have come up with the idea of flat-pack furniture [in 1956] after watching an employee remove the legs from a table in order to fit it into a customer's car.” And it mentions a 2016 interview with Swedish television channel TV4 where Kamprad “said that it was ‘in the nature of Småland to be thrifty. If you look at me now, I don't think I'm wearing anything that wasn't bought at a flea market.’”

But there was evidently a lot more to Kamprad than the ruffled, potbellied Everyman who met the eye.

“All his life, Mr. Kamprad practiced thrift and diligence, and he portrayed those traits as the basis for IKEA’s success. He lived in Switzerland to avoid Sweden’s high taxes, drove an old Volvo, flew only economy class, stayed in budget hotels, ate cheap meals, shopped for bargains and insisted that his home was modest, that he had no real fortune and that Ikea was held by a charitable trust,” writes Robert D. McFadden for the New York Times.

“It was not exactly so, as reporters found. His home was a villa overlooking Lake Geneva, and he had an estate in Sweden and vineyards in Provence. He drove a Porsche as well as the Volvo. His cut-rate flights, hotels and meals were taken in part as an exemplar to his executives, who were expected to follow suit, to regard employment by Ikea as a life’s commitment — and to write on both sides of a piece of paper.”

Kamprad has not had an operational role in IKEA since 1988 and stepped down from the board in 2013 but he remained a senior advisor, according to an obit posted to the company’s website yesterday.

“Ingvar Kamprad was a great entrepreneur of the typical southern Swedish kind — hardworking and stubborn, with a lot of warmth and a playful twinkle in his eye. He worked until the very end of his life, staying true to his own motto that most things remain to be done,” it reads. 

Assemble your own quip from that last observation.

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