The one and only Thomas Lundgren
Swedish retail tycoon Thomas Lundgren opened his first UAE store over 20 years ago. Since then, THE One has become a household name and a leader in the industry. THE One has since branched out to include the likes of Fusion, Junior and Basics – all spins on his original idea – and Lundgren’s empire now boasts 31 stores (which he calls theatres and boutiques) in eight countries, and more than 800 staff.
Let’s start with the big question: Why have you succeeded where so many other entrepreneurs have failed?
It’s hard to say, but what I do believe is that any business needs to make a gazillion mistakes if it wants to succeed. Just look at THE One as an example. I think we have made hundreds and hundreds of mistakes over the years, but we survived every one. We keep learning and we growing. That is the secret of our success.
I’ve always considered myself to be a bit of a misfit. I was a misfit when I was young, and I am a misfit still to this day. And I think that is important because it’s what drives me to succeed. To always do more, be better and achieve bigger and better goals. I think the world needs more misfits.
So why the furniture business?
I wouldn’t say it was my calling, but I wanted to escape from Sweden. I had nothing there and I believed that my future was outside my home country. I saw a job listing for a decorator in Saudi Arabia, and let me tell you, in 1984 this was not the most desirable place to go! I didn’t understand anything about the Middle East, but I decided to go anyway. Later I moved to Kuwait to work with Ikea, and then ended up in the UAE in 1993. Dubai was a very small place back then, and I thought it could do with a furniture company.
At the time, nobody else but me thought so.
I created a business plan for THE One, and if you go to my office, I have an entire wall with framed rejection letters that I received from potential partners and the banks who would not give me a loan to get started. It just goes to show that through sheer resilience and confidence in yourself and your business that you can succeed.
How much of your business decisions are based on gut instincts, as opposed to number-crunching?
For me, my instincts were everything. I never really understood how a business was supposed to be run when I got started. Everything we built was based on a gut feeling, on how people would react, on what our customers would think. I believe that if I had built the business based on a spreadsheet, we would not be around today.
Do you ever fear that those gut instincts will fail? That they may be the wrong decision at the time?
When I was young, I never thought like this. I had nothing to lose, so why would I be scared. But as you get older, those thoughts do start to creep in. Today, I am much more hesitant when it comes to taking risks because I know how far I have come – and how much work I would have to put in to get back to this place if something were to go wrong.
What does winning the right way mean to you?
There is a tendency to credit a business’ success to one person. The guy at the top. But I think – in THE One’s case, anyway – that it comes down to the team. Ask anyone in the business, and they will say that we all work together and that the company is stronger for it. I think this is the key to winning. When everyone acknowledges that business is a team sport. One player doesn’t win, we all do.
That, to me, is winning the right way.
Esquire talked to Thomas Lundgren as part of The Good Bartenders series. The Chivas-run initiative asks local entreprenuers to become a bartender for one night, and to talk about how they raised the bar for good business. For more information please visit thegoodbartenders.com