The One takes over the world, one room at a time

The One’s proposition is stunningly simple – furniture personally designed by a small team and positioned for a middle-tier market.

“There’s no special talent in making things expensive. But making beautiful things at a reasonable price is tricky. 75% of all the items at The One are designed by me and another two people,” said Thomas Lundgren, founder and personality behind The One furniture chain.

He continued that The One has found a niche in the market. “All the other players in the market are traders. They buy stuff, and sell it on. But they don’t always understand design. Whereas design forms the core of what we do here.”

But surely there is stiff competition? “There is competition, but no one is doing the cool stuff we do at the price level that we aim at. We feel less competition today, simply because our business machine has evolved and runs very smoothly. I want people to feel they’re in a cool, funky boutique. But there is still machine-like efficiency underpinning it all,” Lundgren added.

A ROCKY START

The Lundgrens moved to Dubai in 1993. “I wanted to open my own furniture store, and take over the world. Be bigger, be better,” Lundgren said.

But there was little enthusiasm in the market. “I didn’t know how to do a business plan. But I met every single local family you could think about. And all the rejection letters from businessmen and banks are sitting on the wall of my reception today,” Lundgren recalled.

In the summer of ’95, Lundgren and his wife decided to take the little bit of money that was left, and strike out on their own. There was a certain naiveté involved.

“Little did I know that bankruptcy was illegal here. Had I known that, I would never have been brave enough to open with what little money I had. It shows that sometimes you need to be a bit foolish to follow a big idea,” Lundgren said.

The first “The One” store opened in August 1996. Three times bigger than the current flagship store in Jumeirah, Dubai, it was also in the wrong location in Abu Dhabi.

“Our footfall was terrible. We opened the door – and there was not a single customer to be seen. I didn’t realize that it takes years to build a brand. I had far too many cash tills - but no customers.”

With backs against the proverbial wall, Lundgren noticed that Dubai was running something called the Dubai Shopping Festival. “I needed liquidity, and decided that I had to be in Dubai.”

The One opened in its current Jumeirah location in April 1997. “If we hadn’t opened this store, the company wouldn’t exist.”

The company lurched from cheque to cheque, payday to payday. But post 2001 came something unexpected – the Dubai boom. “You know they say you have to be in the right place at the right time. That’s true. But you also need to be prepared. And we were among the first here, and had learnt the ropes the hard way,” Lundgren said.

CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

The One is known for its diverse hiring ethos and has been feted as Dubai’s best place to work. But for Lundgren, social responsibility came from personal motivation as well as the realization that it’s good for business.

“We want to be the best place to work for. These goals are personal as well as business. Yes, I want to be loved, and want my people to be happy. But it also makes perfect business sense – if you take care of your people they’ll look after you,” he said.

In 1998, The One’s store manager hired a differently abled Palestinian. The employee, still with The One, had a tremendous positive impact on morale. “I thought we were doing this for his sake, and then realized he was teaching us. My employees were happier. It was good for business.”

Since, Lundgren’s quest for personal fulfilment, combined with the understanding that being good to people is good for business, has seen The One become involved in social initiatives around the world. “We have schools in India and Kenya. We hire differently abled people. And we do local volunteering.”

STEP-BY-STEP FRANCHISING

The One tried franchising in Saudi Arabia in 2000. It didn’t work: the store died after two years. “I wasn’t ready, and our systems just weren’t in place,” Lundgren said.

The One now has franchised stores in Tunisia, Qatar, Jordan and Lebanon, bringing the tally of owned and franchised outlets to 17. But Lundgren had learnt a valuable lesson: franchising is only possible when the target market and partners are ready.

“The One stores are finely tuned like Ferraris. But some markets don’t need such fine tuning. For developing markets, I’ve offered partners wholesale stores as a stepping stone to get ready.” These wholesale forays help partners understand the manpower, expertise, training, logistics and infrastructure underpinning The One’s complex machinery.

THE FUTURE AND ADVICE FOR ENTREPRENEURS

Lundgren’s right brain continues to invent ideas that work despite the odds. The One has already diversified into The One Junior, Outdoor and the more upmarket FunkYard. But Lundgren isn’t done. He says he’s going much bigger. There’s a new concept cooking away and he says he’ll divulge it later in the year.

Lundgren’s passion is people – he is only now coming to grips with business theory through regular courses at Ivy League universities. His advice to entrepreneurs also centers on people management.

First, he says, help leaders develop leaders. “If you can get the leaders in your company to understand that their role is to create new leaders, you’ll grow well. But if you’re insecure, you won’t be able to grow leaders to help you.”

He also believes that fairness and transparency is the key to productivity. “Having kids and employees is the same thing. Be fair. Be transparent. And make sure that there are systems in place – don’t let kids play one parent against the other by going to the more permissive one. Don’t let employees do that either. They’re welcome to appeal to more than one manager, but must be upfront about having being turned down before.”

As seen on Zawya Business Pulse. To see more, please click here