STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Swede Ingvar Kamprad, the billionaire founder of the IKEA retail empire whose cheap, functional furniture is a feature of homes around the world, has died at the age of 91.
As much of a national symbol as pop group ABBA and tennis ace Bjorn Borg, IKEA helped to cement the image of Swedes as practical, egalitarian and unsnobbish.
Born on March 30, 1926, in southern Sweden, Kamprad started by selling matches to neighbors at the age of five and soon expanded his range to include seeds, Christmas tree decorations, pencils and ball-point pens.
He founded IKEA in 1943 when he was just 17, but didn’t hit gold until 1956, when the company introduced flat-pack furniture.
The idea came to him as he watched an employee taking the legs off a table to fit it into a customer’s car and realized that saving space meant saving money.
Always looking to cut costs, Kamprad bought much of IKEA’s furniture from then communist Poland in the 1960s. He eschewed formal business suits, dressed in well-worn clothes and in later years drove an old Volvo.
Outlining the IKEA philosophy in his “Testament of a furniture salesman” in 1976, Kamprad said wasting resources was “a mortal sin”.
“We do not need fancy cars, posh titles, tailor-made uniforms or other status symbols. We rely on our own strength and our own will!” he said, in what was meant to be the company’s manifesto.
Clever design and modest prices coupled with appealing styles quickly caught on and IKEA’s warehouse-like stores now sell everything from TVs to fitted kitchens.
Revenues were more than 38 billion euros ($47.2 billion) last year and the IKEA annual catalog is said to be more widely read than the Bible.
Despite his success in building the IKEA business, Kamprad was a controversial figure.
He was forced to apologize for his time as a member of the New Swedish Movement, a nationalist, far-right group that supported fascist parties around Europe, in the 1940s.
His decision to live abroad, mainly in Switzerland, to avoid Sweden’s high income taxes was also widely criticized.
Kamprad returned to Sweden in 2014 after a reorganization of IKEA’s complex ownership slashed his tax bill and left him with little formal influence.
Forbes rich list, which once put him as the world’s 11th richest man, has dropped him from its rankings.
Despite his flaws, Swedes took his plain-spoken style — as well as his furniture — to heart, voting him the top entrepreneur of all time in 2014.
Accepting the award, Kamprad had typically homespun advice, saying that success in business comes from “finding someone you trust and talking with a really good friend and testing ideas with them”. To be called the best, he said was a catastrophe.
“Because what I do today, I have to do a little better tomorrow,” he explained.
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Reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Keith Weir