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Ikea furnishes the world

LiU alumnus Mikael Ohlsson is in charge of the Swedish furniture retailer Ikea that serves hundreds of millions of customers across the world. He began as a carpet salesman at one of the stores. Contact with employees on the floor is still important to him.

Mikael OhlssonAnyone expecting to see a strict man wearing a suit and tie who exudes power and position using body language and various status symbols will be surprised to meet Ikea’s CEO. If there is such a thing as a completely ordinary person, then Mikael Ohlsson is one of them.

In spite of his elevated position, he prefers to take the bus, ride second-class on the train and meet employees face to face on the Ikea shop floor.

“It is a conscious decision to work this way and it is based on our philosophy to remain close to reality”, he says.

He is described in the media as a goaloriented, strong-willed person, but also as “a nice guy”, so he fits in well with Ikea’s intended branding image. With his simple image, he stands out as a trustworthy frontman for a company that is conquering the world with its furniture and furnishings under the motto: “Affordable solutions for better living”. Everyone should be able to afford Ikea furniture, not just the rich.

Ikea has, to put it mildly, made a success of its brand. It stands firm, even when the wind blows. And in the media, it sometimes does.

In Sweden, the company has become a part of the collective Swedish soul and many homes are furnished with items from Ikea. More and more stores are being built around the world. The Ikea group has stores in 26 countries. Annual surveys show that Ikea tops the lists as one of the companies that Swedish students would like to work for after their exams.

However academic credentials have never been important for the company. Not for Mikael Ohlsson, neither, although he was one of the first to study Industrial Economics at Linköping University in the 1970s. It was in Linköping where he started out as a carpet salesman to supplement his economy during his studies.

And that is how it happened. He enjoyed the work and liked the spirit within the company. However, the carpets soon had to do without him. Instead, he was given increasingly advanced management assignments that after several years led him out into the world and then to Ikea’s top leadership. In 2009, he was appointed CEO and now has the post that the company’s legendary founder Ingvar Kamprad served for many decades.

Yet even if academic scores do not count for much within the company, learning is central and this means the willingness to learn new things and to share one’s knowledge with others. In this context, Mikael Ohlsson sits down on one of the company’s sofas and spontaneously talks about his time at LiU.

“I learned how to learn there. It was cutting-edge education based on identifying problems, putting them into context and finding solutions. There was a link between the students, teachers and businesses – something that I would like to see more of at universities. At the same time, we learned the various subjects thoroughly, such as mathematics, and I have definitely benefited from that.”

Mikael OhlssonMikael Ohlsson returns several times to that phrase, “learning to learn” – because, even though he also links it with LiU, it is mainly within Ikea that the awareness of its importance has been raised.

“Universities and management programmes throughout the world are interested in our philosophy and imitate what we do”, explains Mikael Ohlsson.

Ikea puts a lot of energy into internal training. Many of the company’s employees who show a willingness to learn are given an opportunity to advance within the company, regardless of whether they are warehouse workers, salesmen or managers. They need to understand the meaning of “learning to learn”, be able to see problems or needs and then find constructive solutions. They
also need to learn from one another and instead of building walls and forming territories, should be generous and share their knowledge with others. This is a pillar of the internal culture at Ikea. Another is to not act superior to anyone else.

To the extent that time permits, Mikael Ohlsson tries to practice what he preaches. He wants to see the real world for the company’s 123,000 employees, on the factory floor as well as in the stores.

“I want to see the same thing that customers and employees see. It isn’t easy to find the time, but the visits also give me a lot of energy. From experience, if I take time to meet people where they are, then we will all grow from the meeting, personally as well as professionally.”

In many ways, Ikea’s corporate culture goes hand-in-hand with a Swedish leadership model based on a democratic approach and ‘employeeship’, where the voices of employees are important. These values are to characterise every Ikea store in the world, whether it is situated in Älmhult in Småland or China, India and Germany.

“Our leadership is based on naturalness. Be yourself. The more you learn about yourself, the greater the likelihood that you can work with others and achieve good results. The whole setup is based on mutual commitment and participation.”

This style of leadership differs significantly from many other countries and cultures that retain authoritarian and elevated directors. Does Ikea’s leadership model really work at its stores around the world? Where, in that case, do you find those leaders who, through their school systems and culture, are imprinted with a more authoritarian mind set?

Without hesitating Mikael Ohlsson says, “Yes, it works”. He adds that it is not difficult to find the right people who can lead others according to the Swedish Ikea culture.

“On the contrary, our leadership model is very much appreciated, particularly outside of Sweden. 20 or 30 years ago, most of our managers came from Sweden. That is not the case today. We differ from the traditional view of management in many countries and that makes people want to stay with us. But, of course, just like any other company we sometimes have problems and recruit the wrong people.”

Then, of course, there are the barriers that need to be overcome, regardless of the country a person comes from.

“But, behind those barriers, we human beings are equal. Throughout the world, there are people who share our values. No matter which country we are active in, they are not difficult to find. I’m
thinking about China, for example. We have fantastic 25-30 year-old Chinese managers. They are smart, open and cost-conscious.”

When the day comes that Mikael Ohlsson stops working, he will not be without things to do. The family is important to him, music has always played an important role in his life and photography is one of his major hobbies.

"I had considered retiring in a few years, but that will have to wait. Now I shall stay at the post as long as people are confident in me and as long as I find it fun."

Text Eva Bergstedt
Photo Gunnar Menander
From LiU magazine no 2 2011

 

  • Name Mikael Ohlsson
  • Place of recidence Leiden, Holland. Has previously lived in Spain and Canada, amongst other places.
  • Family Wife and three children
  • Education Industrial Economics
  • Favourite teacher There were many. One of them was Ove Brandes.


Facts about Ikea
Ikea was founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad. Today, the company operates in 26 countries. Worldwide, nearly 600 million customers visit Ikea’s stores each year. The company employs 123,000 people.

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Last updated: 2014-06-02