Cześć, Polsko!

A love affair.

Swedish manufacturers did not have the capacity to meet Ingvar Kamprad’s demand. And a lot of the Swedish suppliers were also boycotting IKEA. So Ingvar decided to look for suppliers beyond Sweden. He had already begun working with Danish designers and manufacturers, but now it was time to turn towards Poland.

To get round the boycott instigated by the Swedish furniture retailers association in the mid-1950s, Ingvar Kamprad had to think creatively. He had already formed Ikano to make purchases through a separate company, but that wasn’t enough. He also needed support with purchasing. Ingvar had been alone in the purchasing department right from the start, but in 1959 he employed Ragnar Sterte to head it up. Sterte faced a tough task, with not only a boycott but also growing demand that needed to be met immediately. Who might deliver furniture to the new player from Småland? In Sweden, only a few suppliers dared to break the industry’s boycott and their production capacity was not enough. Because even though the industry was trying to stop IKEA, the company was growing in popularity.

Alongside the new head of purchasing Sterte, Ingvar hunted high and low for new capacity. First they went to Denmark where they built up a small network of suppliers, but that did not cover the volumes they needed. In 1960, Ingvar read that the Polish Foreign Trade Minister, Professor W. Trampczynski, was going to visit the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce. Poland was looking for business with Swedish companies. Could this be an opportunity for IKEA? Ingvar wrote a letter to the minister, and received a reply a couple of months later: Welcome to Poland!

In January 1961 Ingvar Kamprad travelled to Warsaw with his father Feodor Kamprad, head of purchasing Ragnar Sterte and designer Bengt Ruda, for a week full of meetings and factory visits. But imagine their disappointment when representatives of the Polish foreign trade organisation for furniture did not allow them access to any factories. But one of the managers, Marian Grabinski, quickly arranged permission, and the next day the group visited a chair factory in Radomsko. It turned out that Poland could offer even better business opportunities than Ingvar could have hoped, and they bought chairs, tables and furniture fabrics. A new universe opened up, both for IKEA and for the Polish furniture industry.

Group of smiling men in dark suits standing outdoors next to 1960s car, one of them shaking hands with Ingvar Kamprad.
In 1961, IKEA estimated that it needed as many as 40,000 dining chairs, but half were missing. Sweden alone didn’t have the capacity. Also, most of the Swedish furniture industry was boycotting IKEA. IKEA needed more suppliers. But where to find them? In Poland.

This is because IKEA was different from other foreign companies. First of all there was the decision-making process. At IKEA, one person made the decisions and there were no long-winded negotiations or doubts about responsibility. The suppliers could trust that the decisions that were made, stood. IKEA could also offer a long-term business relationship, unlike other interested parties. The Polish suppliers were awarded long-term contracts, which gave them plenty of time to plan their production. Another advantage for the Polish suppliers was that IKEA introduced them to new technology. IKEA was interested in the production process, and showed the suppliers how they could reduce costs and cut prices. Costs were always in focus, and because IKEA promised long contracts and large volumes, prices could be kept down. And the prices really were low – almost 50% lower than equivalent manufacturing costs in Sweden. The quality, on the other hand, could be better. To speed up developments, Ingvar and his co-workers smuggled in different tools to their suppliers. Ingvar later said that they were working as a kind of privatised SIDA (the Swedish aid agency): “Slowly, and with constant setbacks, we helped to build up a modern furniture industry.” With time, the Polish factories became a key link in securing deliveries for IKEA.

Yellowed Swedish newspaper ad, illustrations and photos of furniture made in Poland.
“Poland is coming. Showing Polish furniture at IKEA 12/2–19/2”. In this Swedish ad from 1966, the IKEA store in Stockholm invites people to take part in a Polish theme week. Curious customers can look at Polish design furniture, stroll through a poster exhibition with famous Polish artists, eat Polish food, and finally enjoy the Polish beer “Strong Tatra”.
White chair with dark striped seat cushion.
The ÖGLA chair can be seen as a symbol of the great collaboration between IKEA and the Polish furniture industry. The chair was one of the first that IKEA ordered during the first visit to Poland in 1961, and was part of the IKEA range for decades. EUR 3.50, 1963.

What did the IKEA boycott lead to? Finding new ways. Forging new contacts. Finding suppliers in other countries. The courage to leave Sweden and see what the rest of the world had to offer. Poland came to symbolise both a turning point and an adventure. The Polish suppliers gave Ingvar Kamprad a price advantage that the Swedish furniture trade was unable and unwilling to provide. Their attempts to sabotage IKEA failed, and only made the company stronger.