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Anders Dahlvig

Interview: Chris Maxwell

The former chief executive of Ikea, who guided the home furnishings retailer to remarkable levels of growth during his 10 years at the helm, talks about the importance of getting your hands dirty and how business can contribute more to society

My business ambitions didn't develop until university. I did a BA in business in Sweden, only because I felt a business education would be broad enough to give different job opportunities. It developed from there and I went on for an MA in economics at the University of California.

I sent a letter to Ikea when I was still in America, asking if I could have an interview. I didn't hear anything for a long time, but then I received a reply – and after two interviews I was employed as a trainee controller.

You need to understand your business in detail. Even if you aspire to higher management, you have to work at the warehouse, the checkouts and understand the nitty-gritty. It was important for me to learn that, in order to be a good manager, you need to be a specialist first.

At the age of 25, I was promoted as controller of Ikea's German operation. It was about 40 per cent of the entire business. I was more nervous about getting that job than when I took the CEO role – the leap was so big.

It taught me to always give people a chance – throw them in and see if they can swim. My boss at the time, Johan Lagerström, believed in me even though I had very little experience.

A broad grounding in different countries and roles was essential. I returned to Sweden, I went on to manage a store in Belgium, I came over here to manage the UK operation and then became the region manager for Europe, overseeing eight countries. It was all valuable experience.

Reading has been a great help along the way, too. Books on leadership and management by Warren Bennis and Charles Handy were very important for me.

I became CEO of Ikea in 1999. My first focus was to create a plan for the entire group, because we hadn't really had that. We had a lot of small plans in each country, but not one direction for the entire company.

The environment and diversity agenda was also essential for us. The founder of Ikea, Ingvar Kamprad, had long established the principles of making people's lives better every day through low prices and quality. But what I wanted to add was a strong agenda of environmental responsibility and diversity. We pushed hard to achieve this – for example, by having a less male-led business.

I'm very proud of the financial results over those 10 years. We had average growth of 11 per cent and profitability was well above 10 per cent every year. I'm also proud that we gained a foothold in emerging markets such as China and Russia.

I learnt that bad times aren't necessarily so bad. In a recession, we tend to focus too much on the demand side, rather than looking at the positive aspects for business – less pressure on salaries and rental costs, acquisition targets being cheaper, construction costs being lower and so on.

If you want to be a good leader I think you should look at what motivates you and try to use it as a trigger to motivate others. Treating others as you yourself would want to be treated is also a good approach.

Don't always believe what people tell you – instead go out and look at it yourself and establish your own understanding of everything. That's what Ingvar Kamprad told me, and I think it's great advice. Now, as you say in the UK, I've gone plural. I'm on several different boards, I do charity work and I work with universities. I've also been working on my book.

It's not just a biography of Ikea. Through the book, I would like to get the word out that business could contribute more to society than it currently is – and this can be done without being in conflict with making money. You can do both, and Ikea is an example of that.

And if I hadn't had a career in business? I'd be a teacher, maybe – working with young intellectuals at university level would be a lot of fun.

Sport is my best way to get away from it all. For me, that means the gym, tennis, golf and, when I can, skiing.

The IKEA Edge: Building Global Growth and Social Good at the World's Most Iconic Home Store, by Anders Dahlvig, is out now (McGraw-Hill, £17.99)