In this success story, we will share Ole Kirk Christiansen’s biography and the history of LEGO, a tremendous Danish toy company he founded. Ole Kirk was the inventor of the most popular construction set in the world. Enjoy reading the story about inventions, trials and failures, and brilliant success.
LEGO is one of the most famous brands in the world of toys. It is even more popular than Hasbro and Barbie dolls. But few know that the Danish company began its history as a general producer of wood products. The first LEGO toys were entirely made of wood.
However, the company has grown so much that many counterfeiting companies now copy its famous constructor sets. As Seth Godin once said: “If your products are replicated, it means you’ve done something really great.”
Childhood: It All Began With Wooden Toys
LEGO’s history dates back to 1932 when Ole Kirk Christiansen (April 07, 1891 – March 11, 1958) founded the Danish company to produce goods for daily use. Ole Kirk was born in the Filskov village between Sonder Omme and Gave in Central Jutland, Denmark. He was one of 10 children in his family. His father’s name was Jens Niels Christiansen, and his mother’s name was Kirstine (Andersen) Christiansen.
Ole Kirk’s products were made of wood, and the primary cash inflow was brought by selling ladders and ironing boards, for which demand had fallen sharply during the global financial crisis.
Ole Kirk had to find a new niche to save his business. He found it in producing wooden toys because the demand for them continued to be unabated even during the challenging economic times. Ole Kirk’s principal assistant was his son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, who started working with his father at 12.
Having launched a toy production, Christiansen started looking for the name of his company. He instructed all factory employees to suggest a future company’s name. There were many ideas, but ultimately, he chose the name that came up himself – the word Lego, derived from Danish leg and godt, which together mean “play well.” A few years later, Ole Kirk learned that the phrase Lego means “I put together” in Latin. Awareness of this fact greatly influenced the company’s future history.
When they had just started, only seven employees were working at LEGO; they were all enthusiastic carpenters who derived great pleasure from creating new things and cared about the quality of products. Ole Kirk Christiansen had a personal motto – “Der bedste er ikke for godt” or “Only the best is worthy,” which his son Godtfred Kirk Christiansen wrote on a sign and nailed on the wall above the employees’ jobs.
By 1936, the company had a set of 42 different toys. These were not the cheapest pleasures. LEGO constructor sets are pretty expensive nowadays, too. However, the company was still engaged in the production not only of toys but also of other wooden products.
In the 1940s, many changes influenced the history of the company. First, the only single LEGO factory and warehouse burned down. Immediately after the restoration, it became apparent that LEGO would deal only with toys. The number of workers continued to grow; over the years, it reached 40 people in 1943. One year later, in 1944, Ole Kirk Christiansen officially registered the company and called it “LegetOjsfabrikken LEGO Billund A/S.”
In 1947, Ole Kirk and Godtfred got samples of plastic self-locking building blocks manufactured by Kiddicraft. Those building blocks had been developed and patented in the UK by Mr. Hilary Harry Fisher Page, a child psychologist.
LEGO gradually began to move away from the wooden products for plastic. Therefore, in 1947, the Christiansen family purchased the giant injection molding machine in Denmark, which allowed them to start mass production of these toys. It must be said that the injection molding machine cost them as much as 30,000 local crowns, which was a lot of money at those times. For comparison, an expensive toy cost 36 crowns in those days.
In the late ’40s, the company had a stock of over 200 different models of plastic and wooden toys. But LEGO still was not the company that is known today for its unique sets. In 1958, after his father’s death, the third son of Ole Kirk, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, inherited the patented modern brick design. The modern Lego brick was patented at 1:58 P.M. on January 28, 1958. It was an entirely new system, which made interconnecting bricks much stronger. By the way, the bricks from that year are still compatible with modern bricks. This year, the LEGO company decided to market all “non-brick” LEGO products under the BILOfix brand.
New Future of LEGO Brand
On February 04, 1960, the LEGO division for wooden toy manufacturing was struck by lightning and burned down. It was another fire that happened at the LEGO factory. Soon, it was decided not to renew the wooden toy production and to concentrate solely on plastic toys. By then, LEGO was already selling more than 50 types of different sets in many countries worldwide. In 1962, LEGO opened its own airline company in Billund, Denmark, and LEGO construction sets began to be imported to the United States.
Access to this highly profitable market was a significant event for the Danish company, which sought to increase sales of its toys worldwide. Two years later, LEGO started to enclose brief assembly instructions to its construction sets, which had a short step-by-step tutorial on building a model depicted on the packaging. And soon, assembly instructions became an integral part of each LEGO construction set.
In addition, the company started to work more closely with customers, and as a result, it helped them to improve the quality of sets. LEGO was one of the companies that used a customer-centric approach and surveyed customers about their toy needs. Only after an in-depth analysis did they begin to develop new products. Such cooperation has resulted in the emergence of the successful widely sold toys – LEGO train sets.
By the mid-’60s, more than five hundred people were employed at the main LEGO factory. Moreover, the company did not cease to evolve.
In 1963, cellulose acetate, the material used to produce the LEGO building blocks, was replaced by acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS plastic material), which is still used. ABS plastic material is non-toxic and less prone to discoloration and deformation; it is more resistant to an aggressive environment and heat than cellulose acetate. LEGO bricks made of ABS plastic in 1963 still keep their shape and color after 40 years, and they are also thoroughly interconnected with the building blocks made these days.
The Rapid Development of LEGO
Speaking about the LEGO products in those years, it seemed the company focused solely on the male construction sets. However, this is not entirely true, as the toys designed for girls were also available in the LEGO assortment. For example, in the 70s, they produced dollhouses with furniture. Although, even today, most LEGO sets focus on the male audience. That is not discrimination, but the fact is that boys enjoy playing with a construction set more than girls do.
On June 07, 1968, LEGO opened LEGOLAND Park. It was built on the territory of 59 hectares in Denmark. During the first season, 625,000 people visited the park.
The famous logo of LEGO was designed in 1973 and is known to most people today. In 1974, the LEGO company introduced figures known as the LEGO family. This set brought the company a big success around the world. The LEGO AG factory opened in Baar, Zug, Switzerland, the same year. First, LEGO products were produced outside Denmark (In 1992, the name was changed to LEGO Produktion AG).
In 1977, the LEGO Group was led by Ole Kirk’s grandson, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen. By that time, the LEGO Group was producing a lot of different sets for all tastes. The first genuinely thematic LEGO set appeared in 1979, called LEGOLAND Space. It inspired LEGO designers to release thousands of sets on different subjects. LEGO Space sets were just the beginning for LEGO, but a very successful beginning.
LEGO types of products were growing by leaps and bounds. But most important was that consumers loved the products of this company. They were really original, attractive, and exciting. In 1980, LEGO fans expressed their love for the
company and built a massive tower of 13.10 meters of LEGO bricks. Impressive, isn’t it? But do not think that this was the highest tower. Not at all! In the late ’90s, another LEGO brick tower was built in Moscow, and its height reached 24.88 meters. It entered the Guinness Book of Records. In 2008, the company made another of the tallest LEGO towers in the world in the Legoland Windsor theme park in the United Kingdom. It was constructed of 500,000 LEGO bricks of 30.48 meters high. In 1986, LEGO Group became a supplier of toys for The Royal House of Denmark. And as you guessed, the honorary title is the best advertising for the company.
In the 1990s, LEGO kits were in high demand worldwide. And, of course, the market was not without fraud, like Atko. However, Atko toys looked different from the original LEGO sets and had much lower quality.
Recession and Rising
In 2003, the company was under a protracted crisis. Construction sets lost its appeal due to the omnipresence of computer games. The new CEO, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, totally refocused the company’s strategy and moved the annual production of 19 billion bricks to lower-cost countries. He also launched a branch of digital design software and the creation of interactive games, such as Star Wars for the Wii or an online Mars Mission game for PC.
Another online game, Lego Universe, which debuted in 2010, encourages teamwork and lets players order building kits according to their virtual designs. “We’re about many more things than just a set of bricks and a box,” Knudstorp said. “It’s about everyday people getting incremental new ideas.”
That is how LEGO has changed dramatically, from a $300 million loss in 2004 to a $280 million revenue in 2007. Now, LeNiels B. Christiansen is the CEO and president of the LEGO Group. He joined the company in October 2017.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading Ole Kirk Christiansen biography and the fantastic history of LEGO Company, and it’s inspired you to discover and invent.
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