This 52-year-old executive is the real president of the ‘Independent Republic of Ikea’. He is in charge of more than 123,000 employees and ‘governs’ over 284 stores worldwide. Eager to bring transparency to an organization shrouded in a certain halo of secrecy, he gives us an interview, the first with a Spanish media outlet.
The following paragraphs are organized in such a way that the reader will have to order and assemble them himself if he wants to read this interview. Just kidding… But that’s the philosophy of Ikea; that the customer puts in the workforce. The reward: a designer piece of furniture at a shockingly cheap price. The formula works: 284 stores in 26 countries prove it. And at the head of the Swedish multinational is Mikael Ohlsson, 52, of course, a Swede, like all the hardcore management. Married, three children. Ohlsson, who has been at Ikea all his life, is a peculiar executive in an atypical company.
Ikea is not listed on the stock exchange and an aura of secrecy surrounds it. But Ohlsson has been committed to transparency since he took the reins in 2009. His first decision as CEO surprised everyone: to show the accounts, something that had not been done since the company was founded in 1943. He had something to boast about: 2.5 billion euros in annual profits at the height of the global crisis. And in the last year profits have increased by another eight percent. There were also more glassy aspects. Its predecessor had to react to criticism about low wages in the factories of some suppliers located in India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Ohlsson is not having an easy time either.
A Swedish television investigation has uncovered the complex business fabric that allegedly enabled Ikea to save between 1.7 and 2.2 billion euros in taxes over the past 20 years.
Her résumé is that of Cinderella. An industrial design student who pays his way as a salesman in the carpet department and who, over the course of 31 years, goes through all the posts until he becomes executive president. He even met his wife at Ikea. He is in charge of 123,000 employees; he calls them “co-workers. He is in love with Spain and has a house in Sitges (Barcelona). He currently lives in the Netherlands, where the headquarters are located.
Physically, he gives himself an air of Bill Gates. The meeting takes place at the Ikea in Ensanche de Vallecas (Madrid), in one of the halls exposed to the public. Ohlsson is allergic to offices. He mixes with customers and employees. He asks everyone. He speaks with the conviction of an apostle and, above all, listens. The interview – the first one he gives to a Spanish media – begins with the changing roles. He wants to know about me.
Mikael Ohlsson. Have you ever come to Ikea?
XL. Weekly. Yes, with my wife.
M.O. And what was your impression? How can we improve?
XL. Well, we went to get a bookcase, but it wouldn’t fit in the trunk, so we bought a rug for the dog.
XL. We came back with a van and took the bookstore.
M.O. Well, it went well in the end, didn’t it?
XL. Yeah, but I don’t know what we saved in the end, between the gas and the hours we put in.
M.O. The whole thing is a deal with the customer. He takes care of the transport and the assembly and we promise to give him the lowest possible price.
XL. The fact that the customer has to sweat is part of the deal…
M.O. The whole philosophy is designed to save costs. Ikea has about ten thousand articles and we renew about two thousand each season. We do a lot of home interviews, also in Spain. We ask people where they use their computer, what TV they have, what’s missing from their bathroom… And we also ask them how much they can spend. The design department works with all this information.
XL. So, first, they do a sociological study. Have you detected any trends in these times of recession?
M.O. Yes, that more and more people are living under the same roof. Homes are becoming multi-generational again. Our answer is to manufacture a sofa bed with large drawers. It’s not something you have unless you live in Manhattan, but it’s what people are putting in their living rooms.
XL. What a fix!
M.O. Other times it’s not so obvious. For example, the television used to be encased in a piece of furniture. Then came the plasma ones, which were very expensive at first and couldn’t fit anywhere. Our research pointed out that, when the price dropped, it would become a mass consumer item, and we designed a simple table to place it on. Our job is to anticipate your needs.
XL. Nice view…
M.O. Ikea has been like that since its inception. It was born as a mail-order company and was founded in Smaland, one of the poorest regions of S