Jarl Andersson, founder of the multinational furniture company Kinnarps, clears his throat and explains.This summer, he reaches his 90th birthday, but, every day, he continues to be an interested and valued visitor to the factory. Now we are sitting in an airy conference room next to a large showroom.
“Very soon, a year later, we bought a little clock factory here in Kinnarp”, he continues. “Back then we had two employees.”
Kinnarp, located in Västergötland, is a small village not far from the Ålleberg, a well-known haunt of sailplane pilots. In general, it’s no exaggeration to say that the district is dominated by the large furniture company. Here, about a thousand complete workplaces are produced each day, and about half go for export around the world, contributing to an annual turnover of around 300 million Euro. The now extensive manufacturing plant and transport centres for the company’s fleet of large container trucks, in their well-known bright blue livery with the white logo on the side, are the first things you see when you drive into the town from the neighbouring city of Falköping. But at the same time they are proportionately low and human factory buildings, planned to blend into their environment. There were not many buildings here when Jarl Andersson and his young wife Evy arrived at the beginning of the 1940s. Only the little clock factory set in a two-storey building, and a few separate houses, among others Björksätra a stone’s throw away, where the young couple settled into a two-room apartment in another building.
“In the first year I got to know two architects in Gothenburg who made drawings of home and office furniture for us.And wall clocks!”, he adds. “But there was no money then.”
This morning, like most days, Jarl Andersson, dressed in smart suit and tie, has made his way to the factory from the house where he now lives, still right nearby. Since Evy died, he has for some years shared his house with Bengt Johansson, a loyal colleague for many years. Once in the factory, he boards an open-topped electric buggy, allowing him to get around its large area swiftly and smoothly. Throughout the factory, people greet him, while many stand and chat.
“The great changes came when we began to make office furniture for the Government”, he continues.“The double roll-front cabinet was our first product.”
To call Kinnarps a family company is very much an understatement. No fewer than four of the children of Jarl and Evy currently work for the company. Eldest son Henry Jarlsson has been Managing Director for many years, while Assar developed the transport system and made the truck fleet increasingly efficient, and Ola Jarlsson took on developments on the computer side. Youngest daughter Sibylla has, among other things, built up the little company museum which is now in the original clock and furniture factory. Evy had a hand in bookkeeping and many customer contacts. In addition, several grandchildren work in the company. The family circle around Jarl Andersson totals 30 people. “There are now also some great-grandchildren”, adds Jarl. “And three of my seven brothers and sisters are still alive.”
In Sweden, procurement of office furniture for the whole of the public sector, plus all civil service departments and institutions, has for many years been carried out centrally by the Swedish National Board of Public Building. Here, the alert Jarl Andersson got his foot in the door very quickly, after Kinnarps started with the roll-front cabinet and general office equipment. Furniture supplied to the public sector soon accounted for nearly 60% of turnover. At the same time, many major Swedish companies, including growing giants such as Asea and Scania Vabis, liked the functional and flexible series of cupboards, pedestals, and desks.
He was often on his travels, not least when there was hot news to present. “I would take a pedestal in the Studebaker and get on the road. And I was trying to do everything. A country boy going to Stockholm to sell furniture. But you know the old proverb – flying crows get what sitting crows don’t.”
During the 1950s, there were also a lot of buying trips in Germany, to purchase mainly new machinery and also veneers. In particular, there was a factory near Würzburg in the Black Forest area that he visited so often that in the end he had learned German by the natural method.Trips for veneers also provided other knowledge – about wine! For where grapevines are comfortable, there is also likely to be good access to veneers. In time, there were more and more overseas furniture exhibitions that had to be visited. Kinnarps followed its major company clients abroad and grew to become an increasingly international company.The Swedish companies bought equipment for their offices and factories in foreign countries, and Kinnarps office furniture was soon to be found in every corner of the globe. By the end of the 1970s, it was time for the sons to take an increasingly active part in what now ranks as the third largest office furniture company in Europe.
When we step into the dining room towards lunchtime, it takes a good hour before Jarl can sit down around the table with the rest of us. First he has to stand and chat with acquaintances at almost every table. It seems as if he knows everybody and everybody knows him. Not so strange that he keeps himself informed about most things that go on in the nooks and crannies of the major companies of the world. The tone seems open and informal.
“Everybody likes to discuss this factory”, he explains.
It is certainly not very usual for one person to build up such an enterprise. To be accurate, we should say two people, because Jarl and Evy shared much of the responsibility for their steadily growing business from the beginning – and she could be said to be carrying the heavier load because she was taking care of their similarly growing family, while still keeping up with what was going on.
“It was a fine factory we bought”, he muses. “And that was 63 years ago, because it was the 15th of July, 1942, my 27th birthday.”
How does it feel when he looks back? A little smile in reply.
“I’m content.There’s nothing to regret.”
And, with the hindsight of 90 years, he adds “If I had the chance to live my life over, I’d do exactly the same.”