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Illustration of Mikael Ohlsson, president and chief executive officer, IKEA. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Mikael Ohlsson, president and chief executive officer, IKEA. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

What IKEA CEO Mikael Ohlsson learned from Canada Add to ...

Although Mr. Ohlsson assembles his own furniture, he’s been quick to encourage adding do-it-for-me services to its do-it-yourself retail model. In Canada, the chain recently introduced a service to pick out products from its warehouse-like store. And it’s increasingly substituting some alternative materials for wood in its furniture.

“Do I feel IKEA is a shining example of being good?” Mr. Kanter, the consultant, asks. “I wouldn’t say so. But I think IKEA has been a leader.”

As Mr. Ohlsson picks at his sausages – he ultimately leaves the eggs and potatoes uneaten, explaining that he’d had a bagel and cream cheese earlier at his hotel – I remind him of another controversy this year: the discovery in Europe of horse meat in ground meat, including that used in IKEA’s meatballs.

“It was totally unexpected,” he says. “We were, you could say, caught in one of the biggest European food scandals. And the supplier in this case, we have worked with for 30, 40 years … That’s terrible for us because every time there is something we have been part of, it’s highlighted.”

Even so, he learned from the stumble, he says. IKEA now does DNA testing on its ground meat, which it didn’t do previously.

He has also learned from 13 years working under IKEA’s IWAY factories code of conduct, which bans child labour and sets standards of minimum wages and working conditions. Last year, IKEA phased out 70 of its suppliers because they didn’t meet its standards, especially in forcing employees to work too many hours without benefits.

His Canadian connection is meaningful. When he arrived here in 1991, 15 years after IKEA launched in Canada, he faced challenges and opportunities. Suburban homes were “huge,” bigger than he had ever seen, while new condominiums were tiny. IKEA needed both bigger and smaller furniture to fit these dimensions.

He also felt staff weren’t skilled enough in such matters as marketing and running a store. Among his hires was Kerri Molinaro, who had worked at high-end fashion retailers such as Holt Renfrew.

Although Ms. Molinaro had little experience in home furnishings, he liked her style sense, and she went on to become the first woman to head the Swedish home division and now, the Canadian division.

Today, Canada is one of IKEA’s strongest markets with about $1.4-billion of sales, up 7 per cent from a year earlier at stores open a year or more, he says. A tough economy helps discount retailers such as IKEA grab business from rivals. He’s set out ambitious global growth plans for the retailer, targeting a doubling of overall revenue by 2020 from the current €27.63-billion ($37-billion).

Other businesses may be shy about investing during wobbly economic times, but not IKEA. The chain continues to add 10 stores a year and is planning to add up to 25 stores a year, starting in 2016, he says. Other executives may be worried about consumers’ current thrift; not Mr. Ohlsson.

“In economic downturns, people become more value conscious and that’s our strength,” he says. “We continue to grow and we gain market share, maybe even at a higher rate, in economic slowdowns.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

BACKGROUND

Age: 55; born in Helsingborg, Sweden

Personal: Married with three children, aged 10 to 17, two boys and a girl.

Education: Master of science in industrial engineering.

CAREER

1979-1981: Started in the carpet department in IKEA Linkoping store.

1981-1984: Store manager, IKEA in Sundsvall, Sweden.

1984-1986: Training and development manager, IKEA Sweden.

1986-1988: Marketing manager, IKEA Sweden.

1988-1991: Country manager, IKEA Belgium.

1991-1995: Country manager, IKEA Canada.

1995-2000: Managing director of IKEA of Sweden.

2000-2009: Regional manager of various IKEA regions.

2009 to present: President and chief executive officer of IKEA Group.

RETIREMENT PLANS

He wants to sit on boards of four to six companies and work as an adviser on sustainability and children’s rights issues for some NGOs, and possibly advise IKEA.

He wants to do photography, play guitar and hang out with his family.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

“The difference between us and others is that we don’t just buy – we are out in the factories. We have about 1,000 people in our purchasing organization; they are at the factories every week. … You can never guarantee that one thing will happen somewhere, but we are vigorous in that we never trust paper. We are on the floor, in the field.”

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