Today marks the passing of Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA. I wanted to take this moment to share a little about my experience at IKEA since I started working at IKEA communication 6 months ago.
Before I came to IKEA, I read most of Ingvar’s biography, and honestly I was pretty inspired by his entrepreneurial spirit at a very young age. Ingvar was selling pens and other office supplies to his neighbours in his early teens, and later he found his way into the furniture business. He quickly became unpopular with his competitors as he undercut his competition by double digit margins and eventually started outsourcing production to Poland. Some could say that IKEA is the Wal-Mart of Sweden (and this is partly true) but I believe that while Invgar had a drive and passion to maximize profit and cut waste, he was also driven by the Swedish egalitarian mindset, henceforth his desire to make chic home furnishings affordable and accessible “for the many” as they say here at IKEA.
I remember the first time I walked into an IKEA. It was in Pittsburgh PA. I was in college at the time and my mind was blown! Finally, some decent looking furniture that I could afford! Since then, IKEA products have been in the background of our lives and family photos for almost 20 years. Some things have survived longer than others, but what stands out most about IKEA was the fun and family friendly offering of products that kids especially love. Little did I know back then that someday I would pack up my life and move to Sweden to work for them!
This is probably my 5th serious job out of college. And it is truly the first time I can say that the more I get to know the company I’m working for, the more I like it. IKEA is classy. Not fancy, but classy. My colleagues are patient, polite and generally enthusiastic about their work. Mistakes are encouraged, and lessons learned are expected to be shared with others. Most of the managers that I know lead by example and inspire others by their words and communications and work ethic. Backstabbing and gossip are not tolerated, and are considered rude at best. Most of all, there is not a management v/s worker dynamic. HR really is there to help people, not just protect management and collect dirt on lower level employees. Perhaps the most fascinating and non-American policy I’ve encountered at IKEA is that employees are encouraged to work out conflicts directly with each other, rather than take everything up the chain.
Some of these things are part of Swedish culture, while others are purposefully part of the IKEA culture. Sometimes I am not sure which influences the other, but it is a great place to work. I understand that this may not be everyone’s experience, and I have never worked in an IKEA store.
Here are a few interesting and unique things about IKEA:
IKEA is one of the only retail businesses that I know of that designs, manufactures and sells their own product. That fact alone greatly contributes to the low prices that they can offer, especially here in expensive Scandinavia.
IKEA is not publically traded. This makes a HUGE difference in the workplace dynamic.
IKEA is the largest exporter of Swedish food, and for that matter Swedish culture. For many Americans, IKEA is the first contact with Swedish words and food.
IKEA is committed to low prices. In fact, according to businessinsider.com, IKEA has been lowering their prices 2-3 percent every year since 2000. I can confirm that keeping prices low is a constant conversation at IKEA.
According to the same source, 1 in 5 children born in the UK were conceived on an IKEA mattress!
This morning we had a quiet reflection time to remember Ingvar. Some that knew him talked about who he was and how IKEA is well prepared to move into the future. I couldn’t stop thinking how extraordinary this company is, and because a bold young man started a catalogue based furniture store in the deep woods of Småland, here I am, and American, living in a foreign land, working at an international company called IKEA in Sweden.