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Friday, 28 July, 2000, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Ikea's self-assembled billionaire
IKEA boss, Ingvar Kamprad

By Bob Chaundy of BBC's News Profiles Unit

Ikea, the joke goes, is the Swedish word for temporarily out of stock.

In fact, it is an acronym consisting of the initials of its eccentric founder, the 74-year-old Ingvar Kamprad, with the E being for Elmtaryd, the family farm in Sweden where he was born; and the A for Agunnaryd, the village where he grew up.

A typical IKEA store exterior
IKEA stores grace 29 countries
Kamprad, in a move straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm, has declared that whichever of his three sons is most successful in running their arms of Habitat - the upmarket furniture chain which Ikea bought in 1992 - will inherit Ikea and the 15bn family fortune.

Lying behind this inheritance challenge is a firm Calvinist work ethic that was instilled in Ingvar Kamprad from the very beginning.

In 1897 his grandfather killed himself with a shotgun when he could not pay the mortgage on his farm and three years after moving his wife and three children from the Sudetenland.

Kamprad's widowed grandmother saved the farm from bankruptcy by sheer willpower and hard work.

It was she who infected the young Ingvar with enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler, whose seizure of her Sudeten homeland she regarded as liberation. Kamprad recently apologised for this youthful aberration.

I don't think any of my sons are capable of running the company, at least not yet

Ingvar Kamprad
By the age of 17 he had formed a small company to enable him to bid for a contract to supply pencils. Within five years he had set up a mail-order firm and was sending goods out with the daily milk round.

Soon afterwards, he snapped up a disused factory and began turning out furniture. His low prices undercut the cosy Swedish cartel of the time which imposed a boycott on Kamprad's company in the late 1950s.

Kamprad responded by turning to Polish producers for inexpensive components that could be assembled at home from flat packs. The modern Ikea was born.

Now, its 140 outlets dispense its pastel paraphernalia throughout 29 countries.

Kamprad in denim shirt
Kamprad eschews formal wear
"IKEA's ethos is in line with the reforming art and industry movements of 20th Century northern Europe by delivering democratic design at affordable prices", says Director of the Design Museum, Paul Thompson.

"The Bauhaus movement, for example, was concerned with combining style with reduced costs", he added.

A strong social and ethical theme runs through Ikea's "bible", Kamprad's "Furniture Dealer's Testament". Maxims abound such as "Waste of resources is a mortal sin at Ikea", "Happiness is not to reach one's goal but to be on the way" and "Only while sleeping one makes no mistakes."

The company structure is less hierarchical than other similar businesses - titles and privileges are taboo at Ikea. Suits and ties are absent.

The imprint comes direct from its founder. Ingvar Kamprad is seldom besuited, and despite his extreme wealth, frequents cheap restaurants, flies economy class and haggles for bargains at the market in the Swiss village near Lausanne where he lives in tax exile.

Interior of IKEA store
Pastel furnishing, stylish but accessible
"How the hell can I ask people who work for me to travel cheaply if I am travelling in luxury?", he says. "It's a question of good leadership".

It was with some surprise then, when Kamprad admitted recently his over-fondness for vodka, a vice acquired, he says, from the almost obligatory accompaniments to all his business deals in Poland. Despite regular drying-out periods, the vodka habit has remained for 40 years.

Cynics might attribute many of the assembly instructions to the work of vodka-addled brains but Ikea's sale growth continues in double digits.

So, the prize for the successful brother is huge. But, if the democratic instincts are inherited from his father, he should, in line with the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, share the winnings with his two siblings.

That is if they can decipher the assembly instructions.

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19 Jun 00 | Business
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