Spies and Racism at Ikea?

Onetime managing director writes shocking tell-all.

ByABC News
November 13, 2009, 5:37 AM

STOCKHOLM Nov. 13, 2009 — -- The founder of Ikea, the international Swedish home furnishing chain, is one of the richest men in the world. Yet Ingvar Kamprad is widely considered to be something of an average guy who lives a modest life. He's just like his furniture; simple, honest and a little wooden.

Anecdotes that support that image abound. The Swede from Smaland reportedly still has a 30-year-old "Klippan" sofa in his living room, along with another early classic developed by the furniture giant, the "Billy" bookshelf. These sorts of stories not only illustrate Kamprad's modesty, they also testify to the long-lasting quality of his modestly-priced furniture.

The man who wants to turn this pleasant image on its head is Johan Stenebo. Stenebo, who comes from Stockholm, started working at Ikea more than 20 years ago as a trainee in the Kaltenkirchen warehouse just north of the German city of Hamburg. His career trajectory took him right to Ikea's highest management level. He was managing director of Ikea's subsidiary GreenTech and he even worked as Kamprad's personal assistant.

Stenebo left the company nine months ago after disputes with the management. Now he has written a tell-all book, "Sanningen om Ikea" ("The Truth About Ikea"), that has attracted much attention in Sweden. It is the first time in the more than 60-year history of Ikea that negative comments have been made by a senior staff member in public. It's clear that the book is some sort of payback: a mountain of dirty laundry divided into 14 chapters.

Many Swedes are now wondering why he wrote the book. What on earth could 83-year-old Ingvar Kamprad have done that would make a senior staffer like Stenebo swap sides after so many years on the Ikea owner's team?

Stenebo claims that it was a moral issue for him. "I didn't want to go along with it any more and I also could not stay silent," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. In a dedication to his mother Christina at the beginning of the book, Stenebo thanks her for teaching him about the "power of a clean conscience."

The book claims that common preconceptions about Ikea and Kamprad are false. In fact, the author asserts, the entire firm is a tightly woven web of well-hidden, calculated lies. Take the anecdote about the old sofa, for example. These sorts of stories were simply made up by Kamprad and then spread by a willing media, Stenebo writes.

Driving Down Prices

"The company was easier to run when Kamprad played the role of an ascetic, slightly dim geriatric," Stenebo says. "Apart from that, the petit bourgeois façade helped to push down prices with suppliers." At which point the reader might be tempted to ask if the company would really push for lower prices just to -- in Stenebo's words -- "fatten up" one of the richest men in the world and his sons.