How did the Kristiansen family from Denmark turn their small local toy company into Lego, perhaps the most successful and globally recognizable toy brand in the world? The same way children have been using their product for the last six decades – by building block by block, and piece by piece.
With the recent success of the blockbuster Lego Batman movie and continued success of LEGOLAND amusement parks, the toy company is as relevant in today’s popular culture as it ever has. This is no small feat considering many analog pastimes of yesterday have been long since discarded in today’s digital age. And through it all, Lego has continued to be owned by the same family who started it all in Denmark in 1932.
The Call to “Play Well”
The very first Lego produced toys were constructed by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen in the early 1930’s. Kristiansen built wooden toys to amuse his sons and they were loved them so much that he decided to try to turn it into a business. He took the name Lego from the Danish words to leg godt which mean ‘play well’. In a turn of karmic foreshadowing, Kristiansen had no idea at the time that Lego also means “I construct” in Latin.
Ole Kirk Kristiansen struggled to keep the business afloat through most of the company’s early years as he continued to try to position his wooden toys as being more than Christmas items. Then in 1947, Kristiansen bought a plastics mold press and began making plastic bears and rattles. He couldn’t know it at the time, but the decision to buy a plastics mold press would change the face of his company forever.
The Next Generation Takes it to New Heights
Ole Kirk Kristiansen died of a heart attack in 1958 at the age of 66 and his third son Godtfred Kirk Christiansen took the reins of the company. It was under Godtfred’s guidance that Lego started building “systems” in which children could build and create anything they could imagine. When the first Lego communities went on sale with interlocking plastic building blocks, sales went through the roof and an iconic brand was born. Lego would roll out buildable cities, airports, train stations, and just about every system imaginable.
That goal to inspire young builders continues today according to third generation owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, Ole’s grandson and The Lego Group CEO until 2004.
“Our mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. We believe that our main contribution to this is through the creative play experiences we provide to children. The investment announced is a testament to our continued ambition to leave a positive impact on the planet, which future generations will inherit. It is certainly in line with the mission of the LEGO Group and in line with the motto of my grandfather and founder of the LEGO Group, Ole Kirk Kristiansen: Only the best is good enough.”
Expansion Into Popular Culture
Godtfred saw an opportunity to build on Lego’s popularity by opening the amusement park Legoland in 1968 in the company’s hometown of Billund, Denmark. Since then, six other Legolands have opened around the world. Lego also furthered its relevance and popularity by creating Lego sets connected to popular movies such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and others. These sets eventually led to the idea behind the Lego movies which continue to draw huge audiences with each release.
The Future of the Lego Group
Today the Lego Group is a $21.3 billion company and showing no signs of slowing down. To ensure the company is well looked after, the company announced a generational transition of power in 2016. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen is stepping down as deputy chairman of the board so that his son, Thomas Kirk Kristiansen can take over. Kjeld will remain as an ordinary member of the board.
“The family has for some years been making careful preparations for the future. I am very pleased to say that we are now ready to take certain important steps toward the smooth generational handover that will continue to maintain active family ownership of the LEGO Group – not just for the next generation but also for generations to come,” Kjeld says.