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Sofa Talks with Thomas Lundgren

The sofa sets the tone

A sofa sets the tone, just like the rhythm of a song.

Sofa Talks with Thomas Lundgren, founder of The One.

In our series of interviews, Sofa Talks, we talked to Thomas Lundgren, founder and owner of the furniture chain THE One in the Middle East and North Africa. He is one of Furninova’s long-time customers.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Already growing up I knew that my future lay somewhere out in the big wide world. When I was young, I’d sit on a rock near my home and daydream about it. First I thought I was going to be a professional ice-hockey player, but when that didn’t work out other things called. I studied at Beckmans College of Design but mostly felt like a frustrated artist.

How did you end up in Saudi Arabia?

I saw a job ad, IKEA were looking for a visual merchandiser for a store in Saudi. Since nobody was sure where it was, I was the only applicant. That was the start of my journey, which led to Kuwait and eventually to my own company in the UAE. 

Why did you decide to start your own business?

I think I’m unemployable. I question everything so I had to go in for myself. One stormy night in Kuwait, an angel came to me and told me I had to save the world from IKEA.

When did you get the idea for The One?

I had the idea at some point in 1993. The only thing missing was money. I started looking for investors, and learnt that as an entrepreneur you have to be both naive and a bit stupid. You also have to believe that succeeding is going to be easy, otherwise, you won’t do it. The books don’t tell you that it’s going to hurt and take a lot longer than you thought.

When did you open your first store?

Eventually, I got the money together and opened up in September 1996. That’s when someone told me that there are no bankruptcy laws in the UAE. If your business goes down the pan, you go straight to jail, do not pass Go like in Monopoly. That’s a carrot or a whip for succeeding, depending on how you look at it.

And how did it go?

Well, for the first four or five years we survived on air alone. Benny, owner and CEO at Furninova, helped me a lot at the time. You might say we grew up together during that period.

A good sofa will always be an important piece of furniture, it’s the centre-point of a living room. It sets the tone, just like the rhythm of a song. Is it rock, jazz or disco? The sofa determines what kind of music the room is.

How did you meet?

We first met over 20 years ago at the Cologne fair. Benny came to a café and had a trolley full of pictures of sofas. Nowadays, he and Furninova have one of the biggest and nicest stands at the entire fair. A lot has happened since then, but our friendship has just grown stronger over the years. It’s like I’ve always said: life’s too short to work with people you don’t like.

What are Furninova’s strengths today?

Everything a company does has to be genuine, starting with the products and the people who make them. Furninova is a genuine company, and I’m proud to be working with them. Their products and whole range are the very latest.

How would you describe quality?

Quality in the production stage doesn’t have to mean higher costs. On the contrary, it usually means fewer returns and warranty claims. Everyone talks about quality, but few can deliver it. Quality is about everything from production and delivery to service – after all, things do go wrong occasionally. You have to be able to trust a company, and that starts with the management. When you come into contact with Furninova, you can feel the good energy.

When did you feel that business was starting to go well?

Dubai suddenly started growing in about 2000, so probably around then. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly when it happened, but it was around then, and we were already there and ready to go. We didn’t just survive in those first years, we opened more stores and could deal with the higher demand. As always, it’s about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right product. Today we’re in ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

What’s the secret behind your success?

THE One has never just been a workplace, an ordinary shop. It has always been my aim to be an extraordinary company. And obviously, if you work for a company you’re proud of and a workplace you enjoy working at, you perform better. We’ve been at the top of the Great Place to Work list for the past eight years. There was only one international company ahead of us, but not any more. Last year we knocked DHL down to second place, and we also became number one in Asia, which we’re very proud of.

What sofa do you have at home?

We have a Nicoletta, a model made in association with Furninova for our market. It still sells well, even though it’s a giant great thing. Otherwise, the trend has been more towards smaller sofas, as more apartments than houses are being built and more people are moving into cities. A good sofa will always be an important piece of furniture, it’s the centre-point of a living room. It sets the tone, just like the rhythm of a song. Is it rock, jazz or disco? The sofa determines what kind of music the room is.

Lenka Teilmann

Benny Nilsson