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Sun 8 Jun 2008 04:00 AM

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Finding The One

Self-made millionaire Thomas Lundgren, CEO of The One, on why he is on a mission to save the world.

Thomas Lundgren, CEO of THE One, on why he is on a mission to save the world.

For a self-made millionaire Thomas Lundgren is remarkably blasé about money. He says he has no idea how much his company is actually worth and claims he doesn't even care.

"It's probably in the region of US$200 million - I have no idea. And to be honest at this moment I'm not very interested," he says.

Lundgren admits that he has difficulty grasping the enormity of what he has created and he claims that the numbers being quoted to him by financial experts about the value of THE One are meaningless to him.

"What do you do with US$200 million?. I honestly have no idea. It's a number that's too big to understand.

"It would be easier if someone said US$50,000 - it's tangible and it's a number you can figure out what to do with."

It's not surprising that Lundgren is feeling a little bewildered.

Today his business empire spans 15 stores across the region - and there are plans to open 49 stores within the next five years.

He reveals he is looking to expand across the region by opening stores in India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Add to this his ambitious plans to set up schools across Africa through the Power of One charity foundation - and it's no wonder Lundgren sometimes wishes he could go back to the early days of starting the business.

"Do you think I dream sometimes of going back to my first years? Yes of course I do. It was much more simple then.

"You think I have less problems today than I did before?

"I have the same number of problems but they are just different. When I first started I thought success was the key to happiness and I dreamed of owning a sports car.

"But suddenly when you control all this sh** and you come to a place where you could afford that sports car, suddenly it doesn't matter anymore."

It is this realisation, claims Lundgren that led him to set up the Power of One Foundation.

Under the scheme, 1% of THE One's annual revenues will go towards the setting up of schools in Africa in partnership with the Feed the Children charity, with staff from THE One stores undertaking much of the building work themselves.

Lundgren was inspired to build the schools after reading the book Three Cups of Tea by American mountain climber Greg Mortenson who built over 55 schools in Pakistan after becoming lost there during a climbing expedition.

And he admits that it is partly in an attempt to seek personal fulfilment that he has taken on the massive project.

"I am trying to find my happiness.

"It's a question of finding your own journey and being content with that," he says.

"But the whole project has become a lot bigger than when it first started out."So much so that Lundgren's charity will now be funding not just schools but whole village support networks in order to ensure the pupils attending those schools and their families have enough food and water.

"The idea was so simple when I started. It was just a question of ‘how do you change people's lives?

"And then you realise that opening a school leads you nowhere - how do you open the school? how do you run it? Everything gets bigger and bigger."

For the last 36 months the whole company has tried to figure out how to make our stores in Sweden work. The amount of money and energy it has drained us of is scary.

A similar question could be applied to Thomas's business empire - the growth of which, he admits, has made it increasingly difficult to control in some aspects.

So far he has had to close down several of THE One's stores outside of the UAE - two in Saudi Arabia seven years ago and two in his native Sweden earlier this year. The Saudi stores closed, he says, because the franchise agreement did not work out and it was too early for the company to expand.

"It was too early and we were not basically good enough," he says. "There was a franchise and we could not handle the franchise, that's how simple it was."

In his blog on THE One's website, he writes of the Swedish closures: "For the last 36 months the whole company has tried to figure out how to make our stores in Sweden work.

"The amount of money and energy it has drained us of is scary. "The reasons we didn't succeed in Sweden is nobody else's fault except ours.

"It was too far away from our head office in Dubai. We didn't have the depth of management to handle it from here. And our pockets should have been much deeper, foreseeing what every entrepreneur knows: everything takes longer, costs more and is much more painful than you planned."

In our interview he goes on to say that the Swedish tax system means that it is very difficult to make money in his native country.

"There's nothing to gain out of it except great customers.

"Because money wise you can't make anything out of it," he says.

Making money is not a problem in the UAE however where THE One stores bring in revenue of around US$100m a year.

The company is expected to make half a billion dollars by 2020 and the value put on it last year by a firm of American bankers was US$150m.

It's goal for this year is to make US$97m.

Lundgren is concerned however that as the company grows, customer services levels will drop, confessing "Five years ago we were the number one in customer service.

"I don't think we are anymore. We're five times bigger now and the more people you get, the harder it is.

"When you know everybody and you're at about 100 people maximum and you have just two or three stores, you are still at a family level.

"We have 700 people now, we're a teenage company, we're 12 years old."Being a teenage company means teenager problems says Lundgren who compares the "phase" his business is going through to that of an adolescent when "your hormones go left, right and centre". "A company goes through phases, it's no different from the phases in life," he says.

"We've gone from being a kid to a teenager and we have a lot of problems that we didn't have before."

The solution to those problems, he says, is to recruit a new generation of managers for his stores.

My daughters have explained to me that there’s no way I can ever sell the company because they want to take it over.

He is hoping to attract talent from across the globe to enable the company to roll out new stores and to rejuvenate his management team.

"Right we now we are hiring and we are recruiting another kind of manager than we did before. "Because when you grow, you have another problem and that is that some people who have been with you for a long time don't want to change."

Lundgren however has no problem with change. His own personal development has seen him rise from a struggling businessman - begging for loans from local banks and investors to one of the biggest names in the UAE business world and probably the country's biggest European expatriate success story.

He is now paid around US$1,500 a time to appear on the region's public speaking circuit and has investors banging on his door, dying for a slice of the THE One action.

Remembering the early days, he says: "When I started out I would walk around to try to find money and people were sitting there falling asleep.

"Nobody wanted to give me money.

"I used to wear fake glasses at that time so that people believed I was older."

Lundgren's admits that sometimes he wishes he could take up the lucrative offers being presented to him and sell up: "Of course I do. Everytime I'm pi****ed off, tired and I want to kill someone for some reason," he says.

But he is keen to one day pass his business on to his daughters who, he says, have already expressed interest in running the company themselves.

"My daughters have explained to me that there's no way I can ever sell the company because they want to take it over," he says, adding however "I think every parent wants that but you also know that most businesses are destroyed by the second generation.

"You don't become what you are managing because of your knowledge, you do it because of your name. That's not a good idea."

For now though he had no intention of stepping down from his throne, admitting he's happiest being the boss.

"You don't have to be a psychologist to figure out what drives me. It's because I want to be my own boss.

""Why did I set up my own company?

"Because then I can do whatever the hell I want."

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