Flatpack design helps IKEA thrive during world recession

ZAVENTEM, Belgium — It takes Mikael Ohlsson five minutes — and the help of one other person — to assemble IKEA’s Ektorp sofa.

After 33 years at the Swedish home-ware chain, the 54-year-old chief executive is an expert at configuring IKEA’s famous flat-pack furniture.

But Ohlsson is not bragging about the fact that he can beat the assembly time the company itself advertises by some 10 minutes. What makes him proud is that the Ektorp can be flat-packed at all.

Seated on a “Blekinge white” example of the Ektorp in a cozily furnished exhibition room at an IKEA store in Zaventem, Belgium, Ohlsson recounts how, until recently, the popular couch also came packed in one of the company’s biggest cardboard boxes — a pain for customers to squeeze into their cars or carry up narrow staircases.

But then in 2010, IKEA’s product designers came up with a way of breaking the Ektorp into different pieces. The results was a package half its former size, which the company claims took some 7,477 trucks off the roads and cut its yearly CO2 emissions by 4,700 tons. Savings in production and transport costs knocked $128 off the price IKEA charges its customers, Ohlsson pointed out.

It’s innovations like these, the CEO says, that make IKEA so successful even in the uncertain economic times that some of its biggest markets are facing.

On Friday, IKEA reported a 10.3 percent jump in net profit to $3.81 billion for the year ended Aug. 31, even though it cut prices by 2.6 percent. Revenue rose 6.9 percent in the same period and Ohlsson says the sales pace has been accelerating since then — even as stock markets around the world have taken a dive amid the worsening financial crisis in Europe.

“We are becoming a more natural choice when people are looking after their spending or are concerned about the future,” says Ohlsson, his black trousers, black sweater and half-rimmed glasses all possessing the understatement of a Billy bookcase.

“A lot of people see that home is a very important place, maybe the most important place in their lives.”

While sales have fallen in some southern European countries like Greece, Ohlsson says IKEA has gained market share in all of them.

Over the past decade, the company expanded into big emerging markets like Russia and China, although 79 percent of its sales are still generated in Europe. In the next two or three years, IKEA wants to open stores in Serbia and Croatia and it has recently bought land in South Korea.

But the biggest opportunity may lie in India, a fast-growing country of around 1.2 billion people, that Ohlsson says IKEA has been eyeing “patiently but also impatiently” for years.

In contrast to other companies, which are under pressure to quickly produce new value for shareholders, IKEA can move more slowly. The retailer is not traded on the stock market, but is owned by a foundation controlled by the family of its octogenarian founder Ingvar Kamprad.

That structure not only protects IKEA from being split up or taken over, but, says Ohlsson, allows him to make investments in new markets or store upgrades that may not pay off for several years.

Throughout the conversation, the CEO emphasizes IKEA’s eco-friendly policies and humble origins in a poor area of Sweden. In the Zaventem store on the outskirts of Brussels, solar panels on the roof provide up to 20 percent of the energy. The company owns several wind parks and one of its Berlin stores uses local wastewater to control internal temperatures.

IKEA has come a long way from its start in the Smaland region in Southern Sweden. Today it employs 131,000 people in 41 countries and its 287 stores drew in 655 million customers last year.

Ohlsson said he believes the urge to upgrade and become more comfortable does not seem to recede during an economic downturn. Asked whether IKEA’s business was “recession-proof,” Ohlsson laughs somewhat embarrassed.

“I wouldn’t say it like that and it would not be humble to say it,” he said.

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