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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Swede With a Fortune in Furniture

For MTKamprad founded IKEA as a mail-order business in 1943.
Ingvar Kamprad comes into the room where a dozen journalists are seated at a table, waiting for one of his rare interviews. He is shown his seat, but doesn't sit down.

Suddenly he spots a familiar face among the onlookers, goes over to the man and embraces him.

"This is one of my old friends," the 76-year-old IKEA founder announces Friday. "I'm very much proud that God gave me such an opportunity to meet in Russia again and I want to continue our friendship."

Kamprad's friend is Vadim Golonin, who worked for Exportles, the timber products export arm of the Soviet Foreign Trade Ministry. Kamprad remembers Golonin's assistance in clinching a deal with Priozersky Doz, a furniture factory near St. Petersburg, about 30 years ago.

The factory is one of IKEA's biggest suppliers, but without Golonin, Kamprad would never have gotten the necessary permits from the military authorities or from the KGB, Kamprad said.

Kamprad said he and Golonin came across two types of people: the majority who were negative and found any partnership impossible "and ... some of them, who shared our opinion, that the word impossible doesn't exist in our vocabulary."

It's a vivid illustration that the Swede has not only the Midas touch, but also a human touch.

Head of the nearly $11 billion IKEA business empire that has 165 stores in 31 countries, Kamprad is the 16th richest person in the world with a personal wealth that Forbes estimates at $13.4 billion. The group, which is owned by a complex system of trusts and holding companies, had some $10 billion in sales last year and controls about 20 percent of the Swedish furniture market, according to the Financial Times.

The group is not listed and is controlled by the Dutch INGKA foundation.

Despite his wealth, Kamprad dresses casually, flies economy class and gets around in an old Volvo. "I see my task as serving the majority of people," he told Forbes magazine in 2000. "The question is, how do you find out what they want, how best to serve them? My answer is to stay close to ordinary people, because at heart I am one of them."

He acknowledged Friday that making contact with customers during a three-week tour of Russia had been difficult because he speaks little Russian. He also inspected how things worked at IKEA's two stores and spoke personally with all the staff, he said.

Kamprad grew up in humble surroundings in a region of southern Sweden where people are known for their thriftiness.

According to biographies, he showed entrepreneurial talent early, selling matches to his friend at the age of five. In 1943, at the age of 17, he founded IKEA as a mail-order business. But it was only a few years later, after a chair sold well, that he developed the idea of making a business selling unassembled furniture that could be easily transported in boxes. This kept the price comparatively low, and by boosting volumes and using fashionable Swedish designs, he produced a market leader.

"Our main idea is to serve the people with thin wallets," he said Friday.

While customers might have little in their purses, Kamprad's moneybags have been filling up.

Forbes quoted a Stockholm retail analyst who tracks IKEA as estimating that for 1998-99, IKEA earned 19 percent before taxes. "Even the great do-it-yourself retailer Home Depot does well to earn 11 percent pretax," Forbes said.

"Ingvar Kamprad is an extremely profit-driven person," said a top official at a company that has long worked with IKEA, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He hates extravagance and to pay tax.

"Kamprad is never satisfied with the profit. When he makes one good deal, he always looks for a second extra bonus profit in the same deal."

Kamprad has not been harmed by revelations in 1994 that after World War II, he attended several pro-Nazi meetings led by Swedish rightist Per Engdahl.

He has said he attended because of a fascination with his own German roots -- his grandmother was German -- and has apologized in a letter to his staff. A 1998 book, "The History of IKEA," devoted two chapters to his Nazi ties.

"Now I have told all I can. Can one ever get forgiveness for such stupidity?" the Online Jewish Bulletin of Northern California quoted him as saying after the book was published.

Kamprad resisted suggestions Friday that his business has brought any harm to countries where it operates. IKEA invests for the long-term and will never succeed if it is not a good citizen, he said.

IKEA started working in Poland in 1960 and that nation is today the company's third-biggest supplier, he said, adding that President Aleksander Kwasniewski recently told him: "What IKEA has done in Poland has always been good for Poland."

While some local administrations are enthusiastic to work with IKEA, others demand too much money to make it worthwhile, Kamprad said. "Of course, we will have many enemies, and we will make many scandals and the whole bureaucracy will destroy many things. ... But in the end you must be a good citizen," he said.

The future of IKEA is less clear than its past. There were media reports this year that Kamprad underwent an operation for cancer. His youngest son, Matthias, accompanied him on his trip to Russia but was not introduced to journalists.

Kamprad joked Friday that his three sons, in their 30s, might have to take over one day because he will probably retire sometime in the next 25 years.

In other interviews he has said he does not want to retire.

However, Forbes reported in September that the sons will indeed take over parts of the business while working under the watchful eye of their father.

"He never gives a task to one person," said the official at the company that has worked with IKEA. "He always tries to make people within the organization compete for the same task."