Ikea is a staple for college kids like me across the globe. What started with cheap, easy to build furniture has become so much more. The company has gone global, driven by the dreams of the founder, Ingvar Kamprad. The native Swede came from nearly nothing, but through innovation and entrepreneurship, was able to create a build-your-own-furniture empire.

Ingvar Kamprad’s Early Life

Ingvar Kamprad grew up in Elmtaryd on a small farm with his family, during The Great Depression. The province of Sweden where Kamprad lived, Småland, produced poor crops, making farming alone impossible. People had to get creative to make ends meet, selling homemade items and becoming entrepreneurs in their own right. Most children were working alongside their parents, attempting to stave off the intense poverty that came with the economic crisis. 

Ingvar recognized this and he wanted to help. However, instead of working the farm with his family, helping run his father’s store, or working in his mother’s guest house, Ingvar took a different approach. He started selling matches for pennies.

Starting with his business in matches, Ingvar realized he might be able to sell more than his current inventory. He wanted to expand his business to fish, Christmas cards, magazines, and gardening seed: all the must have items in his area. He began his distribution by riding his mother’s bike to nearby customers, until he could afford his own. Being a quick learner and extremely good with numbers, the young Kamprad figured out how to help his customers by keeping prices down while also bringing in a profit for his family. 

At the age of 14 (1940), Ingvar moved to attend a boarding school nearby. This location change did not discourage his business, but instead fostered it. He kept belts, pens, watches, wallets, and other items needed for everyday schooling under his bed. With the money he made from his sales, he gave his father legal consent to register for a firm (as he was too young to do this himself). In 1943, upon his graduation from school, the 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad began IKEA.

The Beginning of Ikea

Ingvar Kamprad at his desk

The IKEA name was created by combining Ingvar Kamprad’s initials plus Elmtaryd, the family farm, and Agunnaryd, the farm’s parish in Småland. Though the firm had begun, it was not yet in the furniture business.

Ever the learner, Ingvar continued learning and growing his business in college. He began to realize that his success depended on the easiest and most cost effective distribution. Getting cheap, well made items from factory to customer is where his dream began. And so, IKEA was born of direct imports and mail orders for watches, pens, and the like. Eventually he realized that furniture was the key to his success, due to the post war climate in Sweden creating a high demand for it. When furniture debuted in the 1948 brochure, Ingvar wrote IKEA would offer more if customers showed “reasonable interest.”

In the next brochure, Ingvar refined his company’s vision to “create a better day life for many people”. He has fulfilled that vision globally, bringing affordable furniture to the many people he set out to help. 

Ingvar’s Life Outside of IKEA

IKEA founder in one of his company’s chairs

Through his business ventures, Ingvar Kamprad was able to amass over $46 billion dollars before he died in 2018. He did this by driving a Volvo, flying economy class, and encouraging his employees to adapt his frugal behaviour. He reportedly even recycled tea bags and kept the salt and pepper packets from restaurants. To this day, the company he created is known for the attention it gives to cost control, operational details and continuous product development.

Kamprad was also once a part of the fasciet New Swedish Movement. Though he joined the party when he was 16, he left quickly. He then joined the Svensk Socialistisk party at 17 and was labeled as a Nazi by the Swedish government, even after he had left the both parties. In his book entitled Leading by Design: The IKEA Story, he mentions his affiliation with these parties as one of the greatest mistakes of his life. Though they were a mistake, the Swedish government persisted in his documentation as a “Nazi”. While he seemed to flirt with fascism as a young boy, by the time IKEA was truly up and running, he had moved on from his extremist past. 

With Kamprad’s death, his will stated that around half of that wealth was going to charity. This behaviour was not out of character for Ingvar. Along with IKEA, he had also created the Stichting INGKA Foundation. The foundation was at one point the wealthiest charity (this title has since been taken over by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). 

So, that is how Ingvar Kamprad became the entrepreneur we know him as today. The rebellious, clever-minded boy grew into a strong man with strong beliefs, which he put the best of into his company. Though he had his pitfalls and mistakes, he became a leader unlike any we had known before. Through his actions, he was able to change millions of lives across the globe.

Want to read more about entrepreneurs of our parents’ generation? Check out our article on Henry Ford.

This article was originally published by GREY Journal.