Meet Ingvar Kamprad

The playful businessman.

How did a regular young lad from Älmhult become one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs? Classic Småland ingenuity and stubbornness are probably just part of the answer. Ingvar Kamprad was very much shaped by his childhood, which was filled with love and imagination. A childhood in which the grown-ups had time to play and listen. A safe world surrounded by forest and meagre soil. The ideal place to play businessman.

Ingvar Kamprad was born in 1926 in Älmhult, and grew up with his younger sister Kerstin, mother Berta and father Feodor. Ingvar spent his early years with his family at his mother Berta’s farm home, Majtorp. You had to be thrifty and inventive to make ends meet. And Berta was. A kind, resourceful woman who, according to Ingvar, was loved by everybody. And Ingvar’s maternal grandfather, Carl Bernhard Nilsson, was just as kind. He also had the perfect playground for a young boy – a hardware store. The CB Nilssons store was a paradise that smelt of herring and leather, and sold everything from nails and sweets to dynamite. And behind the counter was the world’s best playmate – granddad. Ingvar could spend entire days here playing with him. He sometimes had to run an errand or two, but there were rarely any demands on him, he could just play and use his imagination. Ingvar’s granddad was great at playing, and he loved his little grandchild Ingvar.

Two young children, Ingvar Kamprad and sister Kerstin, play with wooden toy car on summer day.
Kamprad family photo, Kerstin, mother Berta, Ingvar, father Feodor, outoors, 1936.
Play, play, play. Playing businessman in granddad’s rural store and running errands mainly for fun. Selling matches and fish to grandma. Cycling around Småland country roads with pens and Christmas cards, belts and pencils on the luggage carrier. A playful childhood, Småland drive and plenty of love shaped Ingvar into an inventive little boy. And this inventiveness would turn out to be something quite extraordinary. Left: Ingvar and his sister Kerstin, circa 1932. Right: The Kamprad family, 1936.

But what about Feodor, Ingvar’s father? During the week he worked at his family farm in Elmtaryd, 20 kilometres away. The farm was 449 hectares and Feodor’s parents – Franziska and Achim Kamprad – had bought it in 1894. Ingvar’s paternal grandparents were immigrants – Franziska came from the German-speaking part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Achim was from Saxony, which was part of Germany. The couple had decided to leave their native regions and try their luck in the southern Swedish province of Småland. Grossmutter Fanny – Franziska Kamprad – had been running the farm herself since becoming widowed just three years after arriving in Sweden. Her husband Achim, Ingvar’s grandfather, committed suicide when the farm’s finances seemed to be beyond saving. He left behind Franziska, a pregnant mother of two. She was seen as both dominant and stubborn, and perhaps it was these very qualities that enabled her to save the farm. The year Ingvar turned seven, the whole family moved to the Elmtaryd farm, where grandma Franziska now doted on Ingvar. Grandma Franziska was stern with most people around her, but she adored Ingvar.

Early 20th century studio photo, young well-dressed couple, Ingvar Kamprad’s paternal grandparents in Germany.
Ingvar Kamprad’s paternal grandmother, Franziska Kamprad came to Sweden from Germany with her husband Achim Kamprad in 1896, and moved into the Elmtaryd farm outside Älmhult. Ingvar himself has said that his close contact with his grandmother had a devastating effect, as it was a major factor in his decision to get involved with Nazi and fascist movements as a teenager. In later life, he distanced himself from the movements and apologised for his involvement several times, saying that he was “lost” and calling it “the biggest mistake” of his life.

If granddad Carl Bernhard had been a warm, playful friend, grandma Franziska was far more stern and strict. But what they had in common was their love for Ingvar. His grandmother encouraged him in all his endeavours to earn money and play the businessman. She was his best customer when he came along with boxes of matches, Christmas cards, magazines or fish he had caught himself. Fishing was something Ingvar loved, but he realised that it would be far more efficient if he put out a net. But nets were expensive, so he asked his father to buy one for him. In return, Feodor would get a commission on the profit Ingvar made from fishing. When Ingvar started selling seeds, he earnt so well that he could afford to buy a bicycle and a typewriter. The typewriter came to good use when he started keeping a customer register, and the bike was ideal for making deliveries to the local area. And perhaps it was around then, with a bicycle loaded with seeds and Christmas cards, that he felt he wanted to be a businessman. It turned out that money was always something that was needed on Elmtaryd farm. Ingvar’s father Feodor often talked about improvements that needed making, if only they had enough money. His mother Berta, who was the more resourceful one in the relationship, rented out rooms on the farm to supplement the finances. Ingvar saw all this, and around the age of 10 he started thinking more and more about earning money. But how?

If manufacturing was so cheap, why did products become so expensive as soon as they left the factory?

Ingvar Kamprad himself said that even in his early teens, he began wondering why there was such a big difference between factory prices and shop prices. When he bought pencils from his wholesaler they only cost half an öre (EUR 0.0005) each. But in the grocery store a pencil cost 10 öre (EUR 0.01) – 20 times as much! If they could be manufactured so cheaply, why did they become so expensive as soon as they left the factory? Why was that final journey from the factory to the customer so sluggish, when the manufacturing process was all about efficiency? The young Ingvar realised that distribution was a major problem, and an expensive one.

Both Ingvar’s parents and his paternal grandmother Fanny encouraged Ingvar in his dream of becoming a businessman. When he started boarding school in Osby, about 20 km south of Älmhult, he continued doing business, but his customers were his classmates. Under his dorm bed he always kept a brown box full of belts, wallets, watches and pens for sale. In spring 1943, before setting off for Gothenburg to study at business high school, he told his family he wanted to start his own small firm. But because Ingvar was only 17 at the time, and still a minor, he needed the permission of a guardian, which he got. The company registration fee was father Feodor’s high school graduation gift to Ingvar. And it was money well invested. And so it was that on 28 July 1943, the trading company IKEA was registered – Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd.

Woman sits on steps with toddler on knee, Berta Kamprad with son Ingvar, in 1930s clothes.
In the early 1950s, Ingvar Kamprad’s mother Berta was diagnosed with cancer. It was a tough time for the family, and Ingvar wanted to do something positive. So he started the Mrs. Berta Kamprad’s Fund to Fight Cancer. Unfortunately, Berta lost the fight in 1956 and died at the age of 53. Following his mother’s death, Ingvar continued fundraising for cancer research via the fund, and in 1986 he started the Mrs. Berta Kamprad’s Cancer Foundation, with the aim of supporting the research and treatment of cancer diseases. Since its inception in 1986, the Foundation has donated more than 400 million SEK to research and treatment of cancers, including research projects into breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and malignant melanoma.

Was Ingvar Kamprad the product of a matriarchy? Two strong women – resourceful mother Berta who gave Ingvar love and encouragement, and stern grandmother Franziska who was his regular customer for everything from matches to fish. Or was it his playful maternal grandfather with his exotic shop of nails and dynamite who gave him inspiration? We sometimes talk about people starting off with two empty hands. But that’s not what Ingvar Kamprad did. His early life was full of inventiveness, love and imagination.

In 1943 the IKEA adventure began, and the years that followed were packed with successes and disasters, hard work and a strong sense of family. And somewhere in all this, Ingvar’s ideas of efficient distribution and smart production gradually began to take shape.

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