Ingvar’s Empire

March 10, 2015, 5:00 AM UTC
An Ikea store in Covina, Calif.
An Ikea store in Covina, Calif.
Photograph by John Sciulli—Getty Images

In 1943, at age 17, Ingvar Kamprad founded Ikea—“I” for Ingvar, “K” for Kamprad, “E” for the family farm Elmtaryd, and “A” for the village of Agunnaryd, Sweden, where he grew up. Early versions of the logo included an accent over the “E” to give the company an international flair—a hint of Kamprad’s global ambitions.

More than 70 years later, Kamprad is still a mythical creature around Ikea, with much of the company culture spread through lore about the patriarch. Take the naming of products. The tale goes that Kamprad, who says he is partly dyslexic, christened various products—beds after places in Norway, fabrics and curtains after Scandinavian girls’ names, flowers, or plants, and bookcases after certain professions—because names were easier to keep track of than numbers. “He loves to tell that story,” says Juni Wannberg, who is a guide in the Ikea Museum in Almhult.

The running narrative on Kamprad is that he is the bastion of frugality—reusing tea bags, flying economy, and driving an old Volvo—a trait that also permeates Ikea.

His past is not exactly squeaky clean. In Leading by Design, a book on the history of Ikea written with Kamprad’s cooperation, he says that his German grandmother “became a great admirer of Hitler,” which he explains is why he attended meetings of the pro-fascist New Swedish Movement in his younger years. When his affiliation came out in the 1990s, he apologized, calling it his “greatest mistake.”

“He has devoted his adult life to Ikea and its democratic ideals,” the company says, but Kamprad’s wealth has hardly suffered from the devotion. Estimates of his net worth range widely, from a low of $3.5 billion to some $42 billion. (Ikea contends the truth is closer to the former.) The confusion stems from the fact that Kamprad himself does not own either Ikea Group, which operates the stores, or Inter Ikea, which owns the Ikea brand (see chart). But the complex way Kamprad has structured Ikea and other entities, many of which are foundations, conceals who the financial beneficiaries are. (We tried to figure it out and couldn’t.) Kamprad’s three sons, who have never given interviews, are involved in running the family empire, which has its hands in projects as far and wide as real estate, a hotel chain, a bank, and credit cards.

Graphic by Nicolas Rapp
Graphic by Nicolas Rapp

(view full spread)

Last year Kamprad, 88, returned to his hometown from Switzerland, where he’d been living for almost four decades. The company says that after his wife died, there was less keeping him there, but the move also happened to coincide with the relaxing of Swedish tax laws. The prior year, Kamprad stepped down from the board of Inter Ikea Holding, and his youngest son, Mathias, became chairman. But in Almhult, Ingvar seems all but omnipresent.

See read about Ikea further, check out this feature piece.