Ingvar Kamprad, the farmer’s son turned multibillionaire who founded the Ikea empire that revolutionized furnishing, has died aged 91, the firm said on Sunday (Jan 28).
Kamprad “passed away peacefully surrounded by his loved ones” at his home in the southern Swedish region of Smaland on Saturday “following a brief illness”, Ikea said in a statement.
He leaves behind a legacy of affordable interior design for households around the world, through Ikea’s flat-pack furniture which customers can assemble themselves.
Kamprad’s close friend Bertil Torekull told the Swedish daily Aftonbladet that the industrialist died from pneumonia which he contracted after a visit abroad, aggravated by “the frailty of old age”.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said Kamprad “made home furnishing available for many people, not just a few” while King Carl XVI Gustaf added he was a “true entrepreneur” who “brought Sweden out to the world”.
Born in 1926 to a farming family in Smaland, Kamprad, whose fortune in 2017 was estimated at €37.3 billion (US$46 billion) according to the Swiss economic magazine Bilan, founded the company at the age of 17.
“He came from nowhere, but with help from his inner force, his ability, and his will, he created something I think everyone is proud of when seeing Ikea out in the world,” Swedish banker and industrialist Jacob Wallenberg told financial daily Dagens Industri.
But Kamprad’s success has been marked by controversy.
In 1973 he fled Sweden’s higher tax structure for Denmark before seeking even lower taxes in Switzerland.
Kamprad announced in 2013 that he would be stepping down from the board of Inter Ikea, owner of the furniture giant’s concept and brand, and his youngest son became chairman. The Ikea founder returned to Sweden the following year.
The European Commission announced last year that it had launched an investigation into the ways Ikea allegedly used a Dutch subsidiary to slash its tax bill on revenue from megastores around the world.
A report by the Green party in European Parliament last year said Ikea avoided one billion euros (US$1.2 billion) in EU taxes between 2009 to 2014.
And the Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2014 cited leaked tax files from Luxembourg when it identified Ikea as one of the giant multinationals fingered for corporate tax avoidance by shuffling money to tax havens.
The group insists that it complies fully with national and international tax regulations.
Kamprad’s legacy of creating affordable furniture has earned him admiration among consumers around the world.
“He has paved the way for everyone to have nice furniture, not just the rich,” Krister Mollander, a 70-year-old consumer, told AFP.
Kamprad faced harsh criticism in the past for his ties to the Nazi youth movement during World War II. Sweden was neutral in World War II, and its Nazi party remained active after 1945.
But Kamprad said he stopped attending its meetings in 1948, later attributing the period to the “folly of youth”, calling it “the greatest mistake of my life”.
The story of Ikea – acronym for Ingvar Kamprad, Elmtaryd, and Agunnaryd (the name of his farm and town of origin) – began in 1943.
Backed with modest financial support from his father, Kamprad began selling pens, picture frames, typewriters and other goods, delivering orders on his bicycle. His early success arose from squeezing his prices to undercut more established competitors.
LUNCH BOX TO WORK
In 1947 the young Kamprad started selling furniture made by local artisans, and four years later he began putting out the first of his mail-order catalogs – which now have an annual print run of 200 million copies in 33 languages.
Ikea’s revolutionary self-assembly model – which would cut transport and storage costs – was conceived in 1956 after an employee suggested table legs be removed so the package would fit into a car.
Two years later Kamprad opened Ikea’s first store in Almhult, south of his hometown.
From 1970, Ikea conquered major markets in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, thriving on the spending power of the emerging middle class in countries like post-Cold War Russia.
The Ikea group now has 403 stores across every continent, employs 190,000 people worldwide and generates annual sales of €38 billion (US$47 billion).
But Kamprad lived modestly, buying his clothes at thrift shops, driving an aging Volvo, and bringing a lunch box to work.
“I don’t think I’m wearing anything that wasn’t bought at a flea market. It means that I want to set a good example,” he told Swedish channel TV4 in 2016.
In 2013, he was forced to hand over billions of dollars to his sons following a bitter family feud over intellectual property income that he kept for himself, according to a book on Ikea.