Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA and innovator of flat-pack furniture, has passed away aged 91.
Kamprad was born in Smaland, one of the most southerly provinces in Sweden, in 1926 and grew up on Elmtaryd farm near the village of Agunnaryd.
He founded IKEA – an anagram of his initials and the first letters of the farm he grew up on and the nearby village – when he was just 17, using money given to him by his father for doing well at school.
In a statement today, the company said he had passed away peacefully in his home in Smaland.
“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,” it said.
“He worked until the very end of his life, staying true to his own motto that most things remain to be done.”
He built a global empire of over 350 stores across 29 countries and was ranked by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index as the eighth richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $58.7 billion.
But he was also notorious for his idiosyncratic frugality. A Forbes feature on Kamprad labelled him ‘The Billionaire Next Door’. He said he only flew economy, always carried his own bags, drove an old Volvo and enjoyed holidays cycling around the Swedish countryside.
He said he did this to remain close to ordinary people, whom he saw it as his task to serve.
But the New York Times reported that his home in Switzerland (there to avoid Sweden’s high tax rates) was a villa overlooking Lake Geneva, and he also owned a country estate in Sweden and vineyards in south-eastern France. He also drove a Porsche alongside his Volvo.
His low-budget travels were intended to set a precedent for employees, including store executives, who were supposed to see their work at IKEA as a lifelong investment in the company’s ethos of prudence, moderation and thriftiness.
And Kamprad’s financial conservatism extended to the way IKEA as a company was managed and run.
According to the Economist, IKEA’s parent company, Ingka Holding, is owned by a Stichting: The Ingka Foundation, named after the first syllables of Kamprad’s name. Stichtingen are Dutch-registered, tax-exempt, not-for-profit legal entities.
The Ingka Foundation, which was given Kamprad’s shares in the 1980s, is one of the world’s wealthiest charities. But unlike the comparably wealthy Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which dedicates itself to curing diseases across the globe, the Ingka Foundation’s vast resources are chiefly committed to innovation in the field of architectural and interior design. And these aims cannot be significantly amended, even through intervention by the Dutch legal system.
Furthermore, while the Gates Foundation acts transparently, publishing the details of all the grants it makes, Dutch Stichtingen are very loosely regulated and not subject to third-party oversight.
Kamprad was the chair of the five-person executive committee that ran the Foundation, and the Stichting’s shares could only be sold to another foundation with identical objects and executive committee.
IKEA’s mind-boggling network of parent companies and trusts runs across the world, from the Netherlands to Luxembourg, the Netherlands Antilles and Curacao – the beneficiaries of whom are not identified by the company.
And Kamprad’s conservatism was not just confined to his company’s finances. In a book released in 2011, Elisabeth Asbrink revealed that the Swedish security services had opened a file on Kamprad in 1943, the same year he founded IKEA at the age of 17, because of his involvement in far-right activist Per Engdahl’s New Swedish Movement.
His involvement in Engdahl’s group had actually been revealed in the 1990s, with intercepted letters from him showing he had been raising funds and recruiting for them as late as 1945. He had been forced to explain to his employees that his pro-fascist leanings were down to youthful stupidity, influenced by his German familial history, and was “the greatest mistake of his life.”
In a 2010 interview with Asbrink, however, he had said: “Per Engdahl is a great man, and I shall maintain that as long as I live.”
Although admitting that Kamprad had flirted with fascism for some time, a spokesperson at the time said that “no Nazi-sympathising thoughts remain in his head whatsoever.”
In whatever light Kamprad’s personal life is remembered, he will undeniably go down in history as a revolutionary of the retail sector – and the facilitator of flat-pack furniture frustration.