Is IKEA the World's Largest Charity?

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If it's possible to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture without cursing at the top of your lungs, I've never seen it happen. There's always a missing piece of hardware, an unclear spot on the instructions, or an excruciating amount of hex wrenching to be done. The next time you ball your fists mid-assembly and curse all things Swedish, though, try to calm down. After all, IKEA's just another charity trying to get by.

Wait, what? You read that correctly; IKEA's technically a charity. But before you write down the umlaut-riddled name of your most recent dresser purchase as a charitable donation on your next tax return, it's worth exploring this ownership structure, which was brought to light by a 2006 article in The Economist.

IngvarKamprad.jpgIngvar Kamprad founded IKEA in Almhult, Sweden in 1943 when he was just 17 years old. Kamprad originally sold low-priced consumer goods from his home and by mail, but added a furniture line in 1948. As the company began opening its trademark sprawling stores, Kamprad grew fabulously wealthy, although he retained frugal tastes like driving an aging Volvo and always flying economy class. By some debated estimates, Kamprad is the world's richest man, and even Forbes' more conservative accounting pegs him as the seventh-richest person in the world with a net worth in the neighborhood of $31 billion.

Why can't anyone agree on how much Kamprad's worth? Well, for one he doesn't technically own IKEA anymore. In 1982, his ownership stake in the company was given to the newly formed Stichting Ingka Foundation, a Dutch charity. The foundation in turn administers the stores through Ingka Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary that operates as a for-profit company.

With an estimated endowment of over $36 billion in 2006, the Stichting Ingka Foundation is arguably the world's largest charity. The charity's stated goal is "to promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design," surely a noble aim, but it's unclear how generous its support is. It's been confirmed that the foundation has given 1.7 million Euros a year to Sweden's Lund Institute of Technology for some time, but even that amount seems fairly tightfisted in light of its gigantic endowment. In other words, if you're an aspiring architect waiting for some financial support from IKEA, you're probably better off getting a job as a cashier at one of their stores than hoping for a grant.

So what's going on here? It would seem that the entire charitable foundation is a clever, if dubious, way for IKEA to avoid paying taxes. In 2004, the company pulled in a 1.4 billion euro profit, but since it's owned by a tax-exempt charity, it didn't pay a dime. Moreover, the Byzantine structure of for-profit holding companies nestled within non-profit charities effectively safeguards Kamprad from any sort of outside takeover bids for his housewares behemoth. The five-member board of the foundation, which is headed by Kamprad, is the de facto management for all of the IKEA stores.

IKEA-dresser.jpgAll of this sounds pretty clever, but if the stores are all owned by a charity, how can Kamprad and his family make any cash off of them? Maybe he's doing all this out of the goodness of his heart after all, right? The company's been just as clever in that regard, too. If the Stichting Ingka Foundation is really just a giant piggy bank, it's got a rather sizable hole in it. While the charitable foundation owns the IKEA stores, it doesn't own the IKEA trademark or concept. These items belong to Inter IKEA Systems, a private, for-profit Dutch company. Inter IKEA Systems collects hefty franchise fees from each IKEA store; according to The Economist, these fees amounted to 631 million euros in 2004. However, thanks to a convoluted multi-national system of ownership here, too, the company ended up paying a scant 19 million euros in taxes on this huge sum.

Who owns Inter IKEA Systems and its maze of parent companies? Nobody knows. Since they're private companies incorporated in various locations, their ownership is kept secret, and IKEA's certainly not about to spill the beans. It would seem reasonable to suggest that Kamprad probably owns it.

Should we really be surprised, though? These are the same people who can make a dresser that weighs just ten pounds, fits in a box the size of a deck of cards, and sells for four dollars. Just remember, when you scarf down a two-dollar plate of Swedish meatballs after buying furniture, you shouldn't feel ashamed for pigging out. Instead, hold your head up high and know that you've made your contribution to charity today. (Wait, you have some sauce on your chin. You'll probably want to wipe that off first.)

May 6, 2008 - 4:05am
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