The $150m man behind The One

Swedish furniture tycoon Thomas Lundgren is to divest his fortune into a school building project across the globe.
The $150m man behind The One
By Anil Bhoyrul
Sun 09 Sep 2007 04:00 AM

Two hours in the company of entrepreneur Thomas Lundgren is a draining experience.

We begin by discussing the purpose and meaning of a new lampshade in the corner of his office. Next, we move onto his recent holiday in Sweden, in between which he confesses to being dyslexic, before explaining that doing an MBA is like getting into the "karaoke business". A full half hour is spent analysing the difference between men and women's brains. We even debate the rise of religious fundamentalism across the globe. Then another confession - he cries when he watches Disney movies.

"If you run your own company, you can do what the bloody hell you want," he explains.

We will go there and work alongside each village. The villagers must be part of it.

He can say that again. It takes a full two hours to realise that the many thoughts, wisdoms, passions and obsessions of Lundgren are actually in some way all connected to his latest dream, one that will be officially unveiled to the world this week. Put simply, the founder of The One furniture empire has decided to gradually start giving all his money away, channelled into a new company which will build schools in remote parts of the globe. Starting immediately, 1% of The One's current US$100m-a-year revenues will be heading there with 15 locations earmarked for new schools. That figure is expected to steadily rise. By 2020 - when the company's revenues are projected to have topped the half a billion dollar mark, he hopes to have built at least 500 schools - not just with The One cash but with a huge helping hand from The One staff.

"The world is [expletive]," Lundgren says swearing: "This whole project is not about me, it's about something far bigger."

Given that The One also has big plans with eight new store openings planned next year across the Middle East, and the fact a firm of American investment bankers have recently been casting a rule over the empire - putting a US$150m price tag on the business - some cynics would argue that his social enterprise project is a spectacular marketing stunt. So is it?

"So what if it is? What's the problem? If you think this is a marketing stunt, then should that be a reason for me not to do it? What is it that you are doing to help change the world, huh? I feel good about this, very good. And yes, I expect criticism, and let it come. If people have a problem with this, it cannot be my problem. If you want to feel good, if you want to do something good, then only you can decide that," he says.

Lundgren has clearly made his decision. The idea of doing "something" has been kicking around his head for several years, and began to take shape in the past three years - inspired by the book "Three Cups of Tea", which tells the story of the American mountain climber Greg Mortenson, who devoted his life to building over 55 schools in Pakistan after becoming lost during a climbing expedition. Lundgren has taken the Mortenson ideals and added his own theory that empathy is the key to harmony. Being able to see yourself in somebody else's shoes is what it's all about. "That's why Bill Clinton has empathy and George Bush has no empathy. So for me it's about our company having empathy - the people who work for us having empathy, so they can understand why I am doing this and why we must do it. You see for me the problem I face is trying to run The One as a ‘small huge company.' When we were a small company, we were the underdog so everyone loved us.

"As Jack Welch said, the trick is to keep the small mind of a company within a global operation. When there were 12 people working in this building I had 12 stars working for me. Now there are 88 people but I don't have 88 stars," he adds. What Lundgren is hoping for is that the empathy of his own staff - 800 across the Middle East - will translate into school building. The current plan is for each of his 15 existing stores to be associated with a village in one of the countries it has a manufacturing operation in. That store will take "ownership" of a school building project and around 20 staff from the store will fly out to a remote, poverty stricken part of the world to help put together a school in as little as eight weeks.

Every aspect of the funding - from flight tickets to cement prices - will be declared on the internet in the new company's accounts to ensure transparency.

The schools will be directed towards female education, though not exclusively, and will be shut down at the fist sign of any kind of religious fundamentalism being practiced inside.

"I don't want people to think that we are going there to act as some sort of missionaries. We will go there and work alongside each village. The villagers must be part of it. The whole idea is to give them the tools they need to sustain it. We will get it started and after three to five years they will sustain themselves," he says.

The projects already look like becoming far more than just a school, and may incorporate the infrastructure often needed around the schools. Lundgren is hoping a mixture of help comes from all walks of life and business - whether it is Thuraya donating free satellite phones or business gurus pitching with their own advice.

"When I started going deeper into it, it just got bigger. I already decided that I wanted the schools to target women more than men in the villages. So we go and build a school in Africa, where in some parts the women fetch the water. If the water is too far they won't have time to go to school. So we have to put in a water system. We have to provide safe and clean drinking water. And who is going to run the schools? We need to put in teachers. Anyone can be a part of this. I hope that they will be a part of this in whatever way, no matter how small or big," he says.

It's a big plan and a big idea, one which Lundgren is now busy trying to convince others to follow. That shouldn't be difficult however given that convincing himself was the harder part. "I needed to really decide why I wanted to do this, and what doing this really all was about. You know I am dyslexic, and I am told that a lot of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Dyslexic people have to find ways around problems in order to succeed. And that's what entrepreneurs do. We look for ways around things," he says. "It's also about having to do something different. I mean, some people choose to better themselves by doing something like an MBA. What a waste of time. Think about it this way - what do you do in a karaoke bar? You go and sing other people's songs. So what does an MBA teach you? Other people's management. So I think if you go to business school, it makes you stupid because you are in the Karaoke business. Today an MBA is useless. Other people are into following ‘best practice.' Why should you follow someone else's best practice? What a waste of time. People have to do things that are right and make them feel good and others feel good. That's why we are human beings." Having convinced himself to follow this path, the scale of its growth is now naturally directly linked to the growth of The One furniture empire, which for now appears to be on a financial roll.
Lundgren admits he has been chased by an American investment banking firm waving US$150m. "They wanted to have dinner with me but I really just don't get it, how you do all these valuations. Okay, so I am worth maybe US$75m. Or better still, let's say it's actually US$100m I am worth. But where is it? Where is all this cash? (at this point he starts searching under his own The One table for several minutes, laughing).

"I don't know where this money is and I have no idea how much money I have. I am pretty useless with money, and so when people say they want to talk to me about valuations, and p/e ratios and whatever, well I just don't get it. Cash is king. And that's all there is to it. This venture with schools needs cash and it will have cash," he says.

Today an MBA is useless. If you go to business school, it makes you stupid.

To grow the company - and in effect grow his school buildings projects - Lundgren admits he has looked at three options - a stock market flotation, taking on outside investment or carrying on as he is.

"If I go to the stock exchange there will be a certain percentage of shareholders in my company and then it is all about quarterly figures and short-term goals. So I could take the money from the investment bankers because they have outside knowledge. But they have a five-year goal which is to sell out. So I have to carry on doing what I am doing, running this my way," he says. So can the Swedish entrepreneur really succeed? If his track record is anything to go by, he probably can. Lundgren's journey to the top has been a roller coaster ride of success, failure, depression, arrogance and luck. He first moved to the Middle East from Sweden in 1984, living in Saudi Arabia for a year before a nine-year stint in Kuwait with his new wife.

Lundgren at the time worked for Ikea, helping establish it as a major world-wide brand. Until 1991 and the start of the first Gulf War when he left the country. Lundgren returned to Kuwait briefly after the war but was unimpressed with the state of the country and decided to move to Dubai. He put together a business plan to start The One, deciding he needed four partners to each cough up US$1 million. No bank or financier showed any interest in his plans to launch yet another retailer.

Eventually he went back with a begging bowl to two Arab businessmen he knew and persuaded them, somehow, to give him US$1m. Another American investor threw in US$500,000. Somehow he got the business up and running through periods of chaos for three years until 1998 when an electrical fire at the store appeared to be the final straw. "But I got through that and we survived. And then you read that book about Greg Mortenson and you realise how he managed to achieve so much despite having absolutely nothing, and you realise that anything is possible," he says, adding: "I don't expect everyone to be saying what a great idea this all is, or that they are all now thinking the way I am," he says.

"But I think if other companies start to do things like this - even if they only do it because they think they have to, you know, its trendy and all that, then that's fine. It's a start. At least a start. And that's all I want to see from others. Do something. Do anything."

The next couple of years promise to be fascinating in the life and times of Thomas Lundgren. A year ago he had plans to open a hotel and a record company. A considerable fortune was spent sponsoring the Robbie Williams concert in Dubai.

Now, all his plans and conversations are about giving back. "Look at what Bill Gates is doing, and what Warren Buffett is doing. It's incredible," he says.

At this point, it strikes me that Lundgren has been talking for two hours and not once mentioned or more likely slated his arch furniture rival Ikea.

But it doesn't take him long and he doesn't disappoint. "You know who the richest man in the world probably really is, if you probably did the sums? It is Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea. And how much does he give? Absolutely nothing. And that is my problem with Ikea."

Nobody, least of all Lundgren himself, expects him to ever control an empire on the scale of Ikea's. But for the first time in Lundgren's life, that doesn't seem to matter to him anymore.

More than just words

Thomas Lundgren is the first to confess he's not a big reader. "I just like buying books, but I don't really read them. I sort of scan them and then tell other people to read them," he says.

There has been one notable exception - Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, proved a huge inspiration to Lundgren.

The book highlights how some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and American nurse Greg Mortenson's unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world's second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town's first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson's efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way.

As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls.

"I think it is just an amazing book and I have bought 200 copies, which I am handing out to everyone I know," says Lundgren.

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Last Updated: Thu 26 Jan 2017 01:27 PM GST

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