Thomas Lundgren: Cool customer plays his cards right

Profile: No one can say the Swedish chief executive of the furniture store THE One lacks vision: he says his mission began with a vision in a dream.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
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Rather than answer any questions, Thomas Lundgren would first like to take his big fluffy dog outside for a wander.

"He's been inside all day," the Swedish founder and chief executive of THE One furniture store casually explains as his faithful hound Max sniffs around in the garden.

Fluffy dog, interviewer and interviewee then do a lap of THE One's Jumeirah villa-turned-office, before putting Max in the back of a black sedan to be chauffeured home.

Mr Lundgren, 50, then walks back into the funkily decorated house and grandly introduces his wife Ewa.

The full 20-minute introductory scene feels a little staged, as if Mr Lundgren has planned it all beforehand just to ensure he portrays a relaxed, cool persona.

Wearing Converse-style trainers, scruffy jeans and a loose-fitting top, he succeeds in doing so.

But he then sits behind an imposing wooden desk and launches into a well-rehearsed sales and marketing pitch.

"Choose a card," he says - not about to do a magic trick, but instead offering four different coloured business cards, each with a unique message.

"Love, Live, Dare and Believe, these are the core values everyone in my company has to live by, otherwise they have to leave," he says, elongating the word "leave" in manner that indicates no one really ever leaves.

A Jimi Hendrix-style character is pictured on the card and Mr Lundgren explains that "The Guru" will email me in the next few days to explain the meaning of my decision to Dare.

"These are tickets, not cards, because we don't have stores, we have theatres, and we don't sell products because we sell feelings," he says.

It is a familiar line to anyone who has read anything about Mr Lundgren and THE One stores.

Another well-told tale is that he had a dream in 1993 in which an angel came to him with a mission to "save the world from Ikea".

One more yarn is that he prefers the term chief emotional officer or creative empowerment organiser to the traditional title of chief executive.

Mr Lundgren will also tell you he has about 20 rejection letters framed in the office reception from banks and financiers who would not back his idea for a quirky, high-end furniture store.

He is a public relations and marketing master and he has been interviewed so many times that it is almost off-putting to give him more publicity.

But he is uniquely and immediately engaging.

"I think there's a lot of [bad things] that's going to happen in the world," he exclaims of the economic outlook for this year. "I think you'll find some woodworms coming out. I think there's going to be some bad things happening this year. And I think it's a huge opportunity for us. I'm very optimistic for THE One."

The statement might seem contradictory on the surface, but Mr Lundgren explains that his furniture and household accessories are bought by wealthy individuals who are always looking for something unique.

"There's always people who have money but people will become more careful where they put their money," he says. "The way I'm banking is that these people are more careful and choose THE One."

Mr Lundgren started THE One in 1996, having finally managed to secure US$2.5million (Dh9.1m) in funding from two investors, Rashid Al Mazroui, the chairman of the Al Mazroui Group, and Shakir Abal Sadeq, a businessman from Kuwait.

Before he set up the business in Dubai, Mr Lundgren had been working for the very furniture company he set out to dramatically save the world from - Ikea.

Having left school and initially worked as a photographer, he replied to an advert in the newspaper and started as a decorator for Ikea in the Middle East in 1983, first in Saudi Arabia then in Kuwait.

After nearly 20 years at the global furniture giant, Mr Lundgren decided to go it alone and grew his business successfully until the financial crisis, which he says taught him a few things. "I loved the crisis, by the way. I loved it because it really kicked us in the [pants]. It kicked me in the [pants]," he says. "Before the crisis we weren't that good. It didn't matter, we sold anyway. I lost interest in designing anything. We didn't work very hard on the systems: how you grow in the company and how you measure people."

Having honed his human resources team and opened improved stores, Mr Lundgren feels he and the business are in better shape.

Sales fell dramatically in 2009 during the financial crisis, but increased by 6 per cent last year to just shy of $100m. THE One now has 13 stores, or theatres, in the Middle East, with more planned for Lebanon, the UAE, Sweden and Japan.

But getting information on the business is not easy when talking to Mr Lundgren, as he becomes easily bored by the nuts and bolts of financial issues and instead prefers to chat about more interesting topics, such as the compilation albums he mixes for people to listen to while sitting on THE One's furniture.

The popular CDs are produced at Abbey Road studios in London and sold in THE One stores.

He talks about three of his most recent albums, which are called Weast (a mixture of western and eastern music cultures), Eargasm and Love your neighbour but always have cooler music.

"I'm dyslexic so I can make up my own words," he proclaims. "My whole company is my toy shop."

That toy shop includes creating what Mr Lundgren believes was the best PR event ever in Dubai - sponsoring a Robbie Williams concert in 2006 to mark 10 years of THE One.

"It was the right time and the right place. Dubai was on the brink, it was not spoiled with big acts, so when he was going to come it was the biggest thing on the planet, everybody in Dubai knew about it," Mr Lundgren says.

Quickly moving on to other points of interest, he casually throws in that he had open-heart surgery in "2002, 2003, I can't remember".

He became worried because he was feeling continually tired for no reason in particular, so his friend Thomas Bjorn, a professional golfer, referred him to a doctor who diagnosed a heart murmur.

"I would have been dead within seven years unless the doctor had found that. Then two years later I did the operation. It's not a big thing but it's an interesting thing in your life," he says, casually, succeeding in keeping his quirky cool.