Ingvar Kamprad died in his sleep on January 27, 2018 in his beloved Småland region of Sweden. Kamprad, born in Pjätteryd in the Älmhult, Småland area in 1926, spent much of his life away from his birthplace, in some ways his first love and simultaneously part and parcel of his lifetime creation, the multinational retail chain IKEA. He first moved to Denmark in the early 1970s to lead the company's expansion in Europe, then lived in Switzerland, from 1976 and until his return to Sweden in 2014.

The IKEA founder, who I met several times, was unique in so many ways but first and foremost as a human being. He was grounded in a way that you rarely see in a person with his track record. He leaves behind an empire worth several billions and annual revenues in excess of $50 billion. And yet, never let go of his interest in people, his appetite to know more, to be close to everyone at the company, close to the products, to the furniture and store design and to the customers. At our first meeting on American soil, at the IKEA store in Elizabeth, NJ in 1999, he was hands on discussing displays and decorations, comparing prices of products and product groups, commenting on the U.S. competition while connecting with everyone and anyone he encountered at the store. He was on a whirlwind tour through the U.S. with his wife, Margaretha, who sadly passed away in 2011, only 71 years old. They stayed at a small hotel in the Midtown of Manhattan, in a regular room. I know it for sure, since Ingvar contacted me after their return to Switzerland and asked me to go to the hotel to collect a favorite 20-year-old item of Margaretha's she had forgotten to pack. It was still there, as was the package of snus in the fridge I got as a gift for the favor.


IKEA was founded in 1943, selling replicas of Kamprad's uncle Ernst's kitchen table. In 1948, Kamprad diversified his portfolio, adding furniture. His business was to begin with mostly mail order but he opened a small store in the early 1950s. He then opened the first IKEA furniture department store in Älmhult in 1958 and as the first store in Stockholm opened seven years later, the success of the IKEA concept was already well established in the minds of Swedes. A few years later Kamprad moved to Denmark to oversee the European expansion, then, in 1976, to Switzerland.
The first U.S. store opened in 1985 but the concept turned out to be a bit of a hard sell in the U.S. It wasn't until the late 1990s, at the time of our meeting in the Northeast, that all Northamerican stores were profitable for the first time. Not that the founder was overly concerned—although always a source of inspiration America was never Kamprad's favorite place to do business. He left much of the North American markets to a new generation managers. In an amalgam of social consciousness and common business sense, he also claimed that "we can't really make a difference here; Americans already have everything."

As I wrote about our encounter at the time I said, "He [Kamprad] both created IKEA and IS IKEA - the man identified with the furniture chain's stores and offices around the world. He is an amazing mix of chief of strategy, bearer of the corporate culture and values and a benevolent father figure for all of his disciples." Premium link to an earlier profile on the super entrepreneur: IKEA’s Ingvar Kamprad

His spirit, his legacy will remain very much alive. To ensure the survival of his creation Kamprad and advisors created a web of IKEA foundations and corporations at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. These entities, run by trustees, are de facto owners of the retail chain and the concepts behind it. Kamprad's constant presence on every level of the organization, his curiosity and commitment throughout the years, has likely prepared the employees for this new chapter in the IKEA saga. IKEA people are still, at over 150,000 employees worldwide, very much a breed of their own.

His creation remains and although the founder has three sons that are all involved in the business today, no one could pick up the mantle of Ingvar Kamprad. Not as a creator, not as a business leader and certainly not as a human being.

Ulf Barslund Martensson