Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad dies at 91

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Billionaire Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad has died at the age of 91, the Swedish company said on Sunday.
Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad died on Jan 27, 2018, the company announced on Jan 28. PHOTO: REUTERS

STOCKHOLM (AFP) - Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad has died aged 91, the company said on Sunday (Jan 28), leaving behind a global business empire built on revolutionary flat-pack furniture but under investigation over its tax practices in the Netherlands.

The company said in a statement that Mr Kamprad "passed away peacefully surrounded by his loved ones" at his home in the southern Swedish region of Smaland on Saturday "following a brief illness".

"Ingvar Kamprad was a unique entrepeneur who has meant a lot for Swedish business and who has made home furnishing available for many people, not just the few," Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told TT news agency.

Born in 1926 to a farming family in Smaland, Mr Kamprad, whose 2017 fortune was estimated at 37.3 billion euros (S$60.6 billion) according to the Swiss economic magazine Bilan, founded the company at the age of 17.

Despite his enormous success and wealth, Mr Kamprad's modest spending habits bordered on the obsessive.

In 1973, he fled Sweden's higher tax structure for Denmark before seeking even lower taxes in Switzerland.

Starting in 2010, Mr Kamprad gradually made way at the helm of the company for his three sons, finally returning to live in Sweden in 2014.

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Mr Kamprad announced in 2013 that he would be stepping down from the board of Inter Ikea, owner of the furniture giant's concept and brand, and his youngest son became chairman.

Last year (2017), the European Commission announced that it had launched an investigation into Ikea's tax deals in the Netherlands.

The Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2014 cited leaked tax files from Luxembourg when it identified Ikea as one of the giant multinationals fingered for corporate tax avoidance by shuffling money to tax havens.

The group insists that it complies fully with national and international tax regulations.

Mr Kamprad has faced harsh criticism in the past for his ties to the Nazi youth movement during World War II.

Sweden was neutral in World War II, and its Nazi party remained active after 1945. The Ikea founder said he stopped attending its meetings in 1948.

He later described the period as the "folly of youth" and "the greatest mistake of my life".

The story of Ikea - acronym for Ingvar Kamprad, Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd (the name of his farm and municipality of origin) - began in 1943.

Backed with modest financial support from his father, Mr Kamprad began selling pens, picture frames, typewriters and other goods, delivering orders on his bicycle. His early success arose from squeezing his prices to undercut more established competitors.

In 1947, the young Mr Kamprad started selling furniture made by local artisans, and four years later began publishing the first of his mail order catalogues - now printed in 200 million copies and 33 languages annually.

Ikea's revolutionary self-assembly model - which would cut transport and storage costs - was conceived in 1956 after an employee suggested table legs be removed during freight so the package would fit into a car.

Two years later, Mr Kamprad opened Ikea's first store in Almhult, south of his hometown.

He was proud of the egalitarian spirit that his company promoted, telling Sydsvenskan newspaper in 2008, "I belong to the people on the (shop) floor".

"The greatest intelligence within Ikea is on our floors. If I want to know something I don't approach a top manager, I talk to 10 sales people," he added.

But he had a tough side.

From 1970, Ikea conquered major markets in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, thriving on the spending power of the emerging middle class in countries like post-Cold War Russia.

The Ikea group now has 403 stores across every continent, employs 190,000 people worldwide and generates annual sales of 38 billion euros.

But Mr Kamprad lived sparingly, reportedly wore clothes from thrift stores, drove an ageing Volvo, and regularly used his supermarket loyalty card.

"If you look at me, I think I do not wear anything that was not bought at a flea market, I want to show a good example," the industrialist told Swedish broadcaster TV4 in 2016.

In 2013, he was forced to hand over billions of dollars to his sons following a bitter family feud, according to a book on Ikea.

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