Review of 'The Ikea Story'

The Ikea Story by Bertil Torekull

I remember as a kid always looking forward to a trip to IKEA. It was so full of ideas and wonders and at a price even my young self could afford. From a very early age I became familiar with POANG, BILLY and IVAR, soon owning items from each and sleeping in an IKEA bunk bed. I remember my first big purchase of a leather sofa from the IKEA store in West Edmonton Mall. We had made the two day trip from Winnipeg with the trip to the store being the highlight, as it was the closest to where we lived. It was a world of wonders with simplicity of design and, of course, cheap of price. It made the world of design accessible to everyone, not just the few. This is a true today as it was then.

“The Ikea Story” is more the story of it's founder, Ingvar Kamprad, but the story of the two are inseparable. You can't talk about one without the other. In writing the book the author, Bertil Torekull, had unrestricted access to not only the founder but also the extensive IKEA archives, the IKEA stores and employees past and present. Though the cover proclaims it to be “Talks to Bertil Torekull” such interviews are only a small part of the book with Torekull filling in the details around the enigmatic founder's words.

Ingvar Kamprad was born on March 30, 1926 in the perish of Pjatteryd near Almhult, Sweden. From a very early age he showed an aptitude for being a middle-man - Buying items in bulk and passing the savings onto his customers. Moving on from selling pens he quickly expanded into household items and, of course furniture. He saw how quality furniture had been traditionally sold at huge prices to a small segment of the society and believed that this did not have to be the case. Without compromising on quality, with skill and pride in ones work, he could deliver for a much smaller price. Indeed, an unbelievable price. This ethos quickly struck a cord with the Swedish people who flocked to his first store in Almhult where he soon explored other thoughts such as showing a higher priced item beside a lower priced item to let the customer decide which one they wanted and, of course, opening a restaurant in the store to relax and refresh the customer. This idea was soon shown to be popular throughout the world as it moved into other countries. IKEA is now a name familiar around the world with, as of 2019, 433 stores in 52 countries including China and Russia (both of which have chapters dedicated to their stories).

Much of the book talks about succession of the IKEA legacy with Kamprad at the time of writing being in his 80s. Here his sons chime in with their thoughts about taking on the mantel of IKEA which is very much in tune with their father but their roles very much undefined at this point. Kamprad was always concerned that his legacy would survive and so IKEA has been structured in quite a complex way with multiple organizations involved with an umbrella “foundation” that supports it all, both commercial and philanthropic aspects as well as huge cash reserves to ensure they can weather any storm (a chart in the appendix shows the rather complex corporate structure) but regardless Kamprad has always tried to keep the management structure of the organization relatively flat, encouraging communication from every team member, from the cashier to the store manager. The belief was of corporate transparency and, indeed, in the appendix we find a copy of “A Furniture Dealer's Testament”, the bible for any IKEA employee with it's simple ethos summarized in the following points:

  1. The product range is our identity
  2. The IKEA spirit is a strong and living reality
  3. Profit gives us resources
  4. Reaching good results with small means
  5. Simplicity is a virtue
  6. Doing it a different way
  7. Concentration is important to our success
  8. Taking responsibility is a privilege
  9. Most things remain still to be done – A glorious Future!

Though an obviously capitalist agenda Kamprad did not fit the common picture many have of a successful capitalist preferring to work hard and live simply to spending his vast resources on his lifestyle. His belief in hard work to provide the people with what they want at a reasonable price was his life and, indeed, is IKEA.

The book does not shirk from the darker side of IKEA such as Kamprad's link to the Nazi party in the second world war, which he admits with frank honesty, and the use of child labour in factories, which he approaches from the perspective of both completely abhorring the practice but at the same time attempting to understand why children are forced into labour in the first place. Here it is suggested that the process of building a supply chain for the stores has help support the development of factories in many developing economies and in the process improved the livelihoods of it's peoples. Examples are provided of where IKEA has worked with companies who initially have a work force labouring hard in difficult conditions which IKEA then improves by providing them with management expertise and equipment.

After this edition of “The IKEA Story”, published in 2011, Kamprad has since passed away in 2018 but it seems the strength not only of his character but of his vision has been assured for many years to come.

It should be noted that as this book is “IKEA Family” branded and sold in shops, despite the protestations of the author, it cannot entirely be assumed to be unbiased though it seems there is an attempt here to address the criticisms that IKEA has had over the years in a honest and frank manner.

“The Ikea Story” is an interesting if often difficult book to read as the same aspects seem to be revisited over and over again, in different forms never mind the large number of details and names which are quickly lost to the reader (or, perhaps, this reader). From the simple beginnings things get very big and complicated, very quickly blossoming into the massive organization now in place. I suppose at the end of the day there is no easy way to summarize IKEA or Kamprad with this book a testament to that though, in the end, we get a real sense of what both of them stand for.

A must read for any IKEA fanatic or anyone simply interested in a way where a capitalistic enterprise can be a force for good.

Rating: “Really good but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2020-11-08

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publisher: Ikea Family

Publication Date: 2011

ISBN: 9780788198694