IKEA – story of simplicity, persistence and success

By: Robert Čoban

In 1943, when Ingvar Kamprad was at the tender age of 17, Europe had been engulfed by World War II and tens of thousands of soldiers were dying in the Battle of Stalingrad, while IKEA was being born in the then neutral Sweden. With a personal net worth of $23 billion, the company’s founder is the world’s 11th wealthiest man, and also one of the humblest, most down-to-earth billionaires on the planet.

 “Welcome to Älmhult”, we were greeted by the cheerful Angelina from Singapore, who, without further ado, turned and started walking towards one of IKEA’s office buildings. It was seventy four years ago that one of the most impressive brand histories was born in this town in southern Sweden, population 7,000.

Angelina is among several thousand women and men from across the globe that came to Älmhult to work at the headquarters of IKEA, which was founded by the legendary Ingvar Kamprad 74 years ago. A group of 12 Serbian media executives followed Angelina wherever she went. After providing us with the basic information about the history of the company and its founding postulates, we started the fika. Yes, fika is an integral part of an average Swede’s life and it means coffee, tea and cake break. We did not mind it at all! Some of us enjoyed our fika outdoors, puffing on a cigarette.

I have travelled with many companies all over the world, from Rio to Hurghada, but I have to say that the people from the Serbian branch of IKEA managed to put together the best group of people so far, which certainly couldn’t have been easy considering the current situation in the Serbian media. Naturally, we stayed at the IKEA Hotel, which, apart from the expected clean and simple room décor, has an interesting innovation: every floor has its own shared living room, with furniture, a kitchen, a bar, a TV, a beer cooler and everything one might find in a living room. In ‘the living room’ on the third floor, on the last evening of our stay, while munching on veggie chips and drinking beer, we watched the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest and laughed our heads off.


IKEA, which this summer is planning to open its first retail outlet in Serbia (not counting a brief stint in 1991), is one of the biggest global conglomerates today, with 183,000 employees and 392 retail outlets in 48 countries worldwide. The company’s total revenue in 2016 amounted to €35 billion, with profit totalling €4.5 billion. IKEA opened a small shop in New Belgrade, just opposite the Hyatt Hotel, in 1991 – I was told by Vladislav Lalić, the company’s regional director, who worked for IKEA back then too, exactly 27 years ago. The imposing of UN sanctions in May 1992 banned international companies from continuing to operate on the Serbian market, forcing IKEA to close the doors to its experimental shop in the Serbian capital.

Prior to IKEA’s departure, all workers were given redundancy payments worth two years of their salary (as assistance in finding a new job), with the message: “If we ever come back, all of you who worked for us in 1992 will be given priority in hiring”. IKEA’s “threat” has now been carried out… 25 years later, IKEA is coming back to Serbia, and some of its former workers, from 1992, have been given jobs in the company again.

The IKEA Museum has exhibits and photographs that tell the story of how Småland, an underprivileged county of southern Sweden that people left in droves to emigrate to America in the late 19th century, became the home of a furniture company that now supplies the entire world. The simplicity of IKEA’s designs is rooted in this county’s countryside, in its wood and stone, but also in the modesty and purity found in the people living in this part of Scandinavia.


 Ingvar Kamprad (91) became an entrepreneur as a young boy, selling matches that he got from Stockholm. He later added sales of fish, seed and Christmas decorations to his business portfolio. In 1943, when Kamprad was at the tender age of 17, Europe had been engulfed by World War II and tens of thousands of soldiers were dying in the Battle of Stalingrad, while IKEA was being born in the then neutral Sweden. With a personal net worth of $23 billion, Ingvar is the world’s 11th wealthiest man, and also one of the humblest, most down-to-earth billionaires on the planet. The IKEA founder has three sons – Peter, Jonas and Mathias – and an adopted daughter, Annika. He lived in Switzerland until 1974, but moved back to Sweden after his wife died and bought a farm near Älmhult. Known as a humble man, he drove a regular Volvo 240 for a very long time, and always flew Economy Class.

Back in the day he was also known for using the same tea bag several times, or for pocketing small salt and sugar sachets from restaurants. There are also rumours about his alcohol consumption at the beginning of his career while he was living in Poland, as well as those connected to Per Engdahl, the leader of the Swedish pro-Nazi movement, Nysvenska Rörelsen (New Swedish Movement) during World War II.

In 1976, Kamprad wrote “A Furniture Dealer’s Testament”, in which he outlined the business principles that IKEA still implements to this day. One of the most important principles is the so-called democratic design, which comprises five elements – sustainability, affordability, form, functionality and quality. We heard from the company’s HR Sector about how much attention is paid to respecting the human rights of employees and eliminating any form of discrimination – be that based on gender, age, race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. The company abides by the laws and customs of the countries in which it operates. It also has stores in Saudi Arabia, where many of the aforementioned postulates of the perfectly regulated Protestant society are an ideal that is difficult to attain.

At the IKEA Group HQ in Malmö, which we visited on our last day in Sweden, there are 1,400 employees and none of them (except the canteen manager) has their own office or desk. Everybody works in an open-space arrangement, on their laptops, storing their personal items in cubicles. If they need a conference room, they will be given access to one on condition that the meeting they are to have there is confidential. Otherwise they are sent to have a meeting in one of the many comfortable and inspirational spaces in the building, which is completely self-sustainable in terms of energy. While we were touring several buildings inside the IKEA complex, we met a few employees from the former Yugoslavia. We even met up with a Serbian woman from Timisoara who managed to defect to Sweden during Ceaușescu’s rule, and who has been working at IKEA for 30 years.


 I was interested in finding out more about the company’s current ownership and management structure. A foundation, which has articles of association stating that the profit generated can be used in one of two ways – for CSR activities (charity) or the further development of the business – is the founder of different segments of the IKEA Corporation. So, perpetual sustainable development has been encoded into the company’s DNA, with none of Kamprad’s heirs allowed to spend the corporation’s profits to buy mega yachts or mansions in Capri.

During one of my fika breaks, and inspired by the Protestant work ethic of Scandinavians, I started  talking to Angelina about my simplified view of the world where good organisation and efficiency, i.e. Protestants and Jews (Israel, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands, the U.S., the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia – namely the wealthiest and most progressive countries) are at the top of the pyramid, while the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries, with their corruption, organised crime, various obscure dictatorships and similar creations, all of which are part of the national folklore, just below them. Below these countries are Muslim states, where limbs are hacked off for various offences, and where the populations of Bangladesh and Pakistan slave away just to keep the Gulf oil magnates rich. This is how our planet, east of the Ganges River, looks in my politically incorrect vision, which resembles a humorous map à la the World according to Ronald Reagan, ± 10%. And then, further to the East, we have Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Angelina’s Singapore, as societies which are on par with the Protestant countries in Scandinavia or the Benelux region.

Angelina told me about the then dirty and neglected Singapore, which had just gained its independence from the United Kingdom, as a colony stuck between the undeveloped and chaotic Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia that was transformed into an economic miracle by one man – the father of the nation, Lee Kuan Yew, aka LKY. He raised the country’s GDP from $2,000 per capita in 1960 to $50,000 in 2015, a day before he died at the age of 91. “There is hope for us then,” I muttered. Perhaps…


 “We hate air at IKEA” is one of the company slogans that I heard in the Älmhult showroom. We are talking, of course, about the packaging and transportation method for IKEA furniture, which entails fitting 20 three-seat couches into a single truck, while, for instance, other furniture companies can fit only five, like we are used to seeing in the Balkans. For instance, when IKEA started to deliver its Ektorp Sofa in pieces in 2010, the number of truck deliveries was reduced by 7,477 times, which also led to a 14% reduction in the price of the sofa.

Every IKEA store worldwide, including the future one in Belgrade, has a restaurant serving traditional Swedish dishes – meatballs with boiled potatoes and mountain cranberry sauce. It is also worth mentioning an interesting principle that IKEA uses to name certain products. For instance, the rattan furniture is named after towns and villages in Sweden; beds are named after places in Norway; dining tables and chairs are given Finnish toponyms; bookcase are named after various occupations in Swedish; bathroom furniture is given the names of Swedish rivers and lakes; sofas are given male names; curtains female names; garden furniture is named after Swedish islands; carpets are named after places in Denmark; children’s toys and equipment are given the names of mammals and birds etc. Certain name proposals are sometimes rejected because they have a meaning in a different language that isn’t so politically correct. Still, there is a sofa called Klippan (Fool), though it remains to be seen whether this sofa will carry the same name when it goes on sale in Serbia.

Our return flight to Belgrade was cancelled in Frankfurt due to “bad weather” (to us it looked like just like a few raindrops) and because Lufthansa didn’t have enough adequate and available planes for such weather conditions. I asked journalist Ivana Konstantinović what Ingvar would do in such a situation and she quipped: “He would assemble a new plane out of parts and we would be on our way home”.

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