Ingvar Kamprad has helped lead the company he founded since 1943. It's an impressive feat for any founder--but especially one with such a complicated past.
Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad is stepping down as chairman of the board, and handing the position down to his youngest son, Mathias Kamprad. The Swedish retailer announced the move in a statement Wednesday, explaining that the changes are "part of the generational shift that has been prepared for and ongoing for some years."
The fact that an 87-year-old billionaire would be prepared to hand over the company's reins isn't entirely unexpected. What is noteworthy, however, is the fact that, even after resigning as CEO in 1986, Kamprad has retained a leadership role at Ikea since the day he founded the company in 1943. In a world in which quick exits all too often give way to disgruntled founder departures and ousters, Kamprad's story is somewhat unique, especially considering the fact that Kamprad's 70-year tenure has seen a fair share of controversy.
The Early Days
As the oft-told story goes, Kamprad was a born entrepreneur, who, while growing up on a small Swedish farm, began selling matches off the back of his bicycle at the age of five. When he was 17, Kamprad's father rewarded him for his performance in school with money that would become start-up capital for Ikea. Originally, Kamprad sold things like wallets, pens, and jewelry. It wasn't until 1956 that the company introduced the flat-pack furniture that has helped turn Ikea into a $35 billion retail juggernaut with more than 300 retail stores worldwide.
The Past Catches Up
But along the road to that growth, Kamprad has had to address several scandals. In 1994, after a Swedish newspaper published the archives of Nazi activist Per Engdahl, which mentioned Kamprad by name, Kamprad confessed to Ikea's staff that as a teen, he had been involved in the Nazi party. As The New York Timesreported at the time, Kamprad called his involvement "a part of my life which I bitterly regret," and claimed to have severed his ties to the party in the 1950s.
Besides the personal scandal, Kamprad also has had to address corporate controversies as well. Last year, the company admitted that during the 1980s, while Kamprad was still Ikea's CEO, the company used political prisoners doing forced labor in its factories in East Germany. "Even though Ikea Group took steps to secure that prisoners were not used in production, it is now clear that these measures were not effective enough," the company said in a statement at the time.
And then there was Ikea's most recent crisis, in which the company was forced to recall its Swedish meatballs across European stores this year after traces of horse meat were detected in one batch.
The Founder's Touch
And yet, many retail industry experts contend that for all these missteps, Kamprad was more of an asset to the company than he was a liability. In an interview last year with Le Monde magazine, Susanne Sweet, a professor at the Stockholm School of Economics said, "One wonders what will happen when Kamprad's gone? Because the image of this farm boy from Smaland--hardworking, thrifty, with all this mythology around him, close to the common folk… the Kamprad sons, who grew up in a very different world, don't represent that at all. Do they have any of the same values of their father?"
Kamprad, for one, insists that despite the fact that he's leaving his role as chairman, he plans to continue on in an advisory role. In a statement, he said, "My passion and engagement for the many people, the Ikea concept, simplicity and cost consciousness is as strong as ever. I will continue share ideas and views. And I will continue to spend time in the stores and in the factories to work with people and help achieve constant improvement. Our journey has just started."
Editor's note: Inc.com put in a request for comment from Kamprad. We'll update the story if he responds.