Steen Kanter The Big Idea Project

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Steen Kanter spent 22 years helping to make IKEA the global presence it is today. Now, nearly 20 years since he moved to Raleigh, he’s ready to settle down and get involved in the Triangle startup community. 
Kanter doesn’t expect to make investments in Triangle startups. But he does some serious mentor chops with decades of experience building brands, including the last 17 years running his own global branding firm called Kanter International. More on that below. 

But Kanter cut his teeth and built his own brand at the modern affordable furniture store chain based in his native Denmark. He joined the company when it had just eight stores in Scandinavia and helped to grow its footprint in Europe and into the U.S. as president of IKEA U.S. East. Global sales grew from $200 million when he joined the company in 1971 to $10.5 billion when he left in 1994 to work for now-defunct Lechters Housewares. He came to Raleigh to serve as president and CEO of Body Shop Cosmetics in 1996. 
Kanter hopes to spend one-on-one time with one lucky winner of the first Big Idea Project beginning this October. He’s among three partners in the project that we profiled here
To help the Triangle startup community get to know Kanter, here's a recent Q&A I conducted with the man. If you’re free on Oct. 13, you can meet him at The Big Idea’s main event, where one winner will be chosen to receive $100,000 in legal, branding, marketing and web development work. The deadline to apply is Sept. 30. 
In the meantime, enjoy meeting Steen Kanter: 

Why did you start Kanter International? Talk about your brief time in Silicon Valley at your company’s start. 

My wife had lived in five countries and I had promised her that when we moved to Raleigh that this would be the last move. And so when I left the Body Shop, there was nothing for me to do here. This was in 1998-2000 and a lot of private equity companies came to me to help them in Silicon Valley. There was a lot of money floating out there and the VCs wanted me to come in and help lead these companies and protect their investments. So I commuted from Raleigh to Silicon Valley every week. This was when Amazon was nothing. You would sit in the Starbucks and hear people become multi millionaires. It was an unbelievably interesting time, very vibrant. 

So how did you get clients like Herman Miller and Everlast? And what sort of projects do you do? 

I began to meet people and they pulled me into a lot of other projects. Herman Miller, a $2 billion office furniture company came to us to help them figure out consumers because they were a manufacturer. So we started with the retail division, which was very small, and then we worked with small business then the government division for 11 years. Ashley Furniture then came to us and wanted to learn how to do well in the stores. We helped the CEO restructure the company and then they asked us to open stores in China—we went to Shanghai to open the first Ashley stores. 
Then we got involved with various other concepts like Everlast, the boxing brand. A 55-year-old unemployed school teacher on Long Island that loved boxing bought the license program for Everlast but the company didn’t do well. He did well though and bought the company but then he died from cancer. We got a call from a private equity company and said you’ve got to talk to the son, who was 28. We started working together when the company and market cap was $60 million and we sold it for $181 million to a London company after new branding and marketing strategy. It went so fast we didn’t even get stock in the company. 
I can go on and on and on—we have had over 100 clients around the world. In the meantime, we had one client in Raleigh ever. The Raleigh companies couldn’t really pay our fees. 
So play forward to now, we are doing a bit of work for Herman Miller and we took a Danish retailer called Flying Tiger to the U.S. this year. They have 480 stores globally and they came to us because they wanted to come to the U.S. but didn’t have the time to do it—they open three stores a week. So we opened the first store in the Flatiron district in New York about 2.5 months ago and it became the No. 1 revenue-generating store for the company out of the box. Now we’re involved in building that. We have 4-6 clients all the time. 

Who is we?

I have about 15 people that I like working with—I pick people for each project. One of them is my daughter. She's a brand strategist in Massachusetts and she's running Flying Tiger and I'm doing the real estate strategy and reporting to her.

Why are you involved in the Big Idea Project? 

I had the feeling that in some point of time, I want to travel a bit less because I’m never here. And to do that, I need to keep my brain going and I want to be in touch with the young people that are vibrant and who we can do some thinking with. So I reached out to the universities and a few people. It’s not a matter of money but a matter of just having fun. When I started talking, this organization came up and it sounded cool. 
What’s going to be interesting here is you’ve got to get these people to listen. I have stepped on every land mine in my own career—I ran IKEA Austria when I was 30 and I made my mistakes—so now it’s my job to help them avoid their land mines. 

How do you translate your knowledge of big brands to help small companies? 

This is no different than the stuff we did in 1998 in Silicon Valley. At that time, we worked with the technology companies that had very little product and we took them to funding. It’s always about the business and the brand. Young companies don’t understand what has to happen. They have this knowledge, but who is going to buy it and what about cash flow, what about the brand? They start with marketing before they understand the brand. It’s about sitting down and asking questions, and it really comes down to cash flow. 
When we worked with Herman Miller, Ashley, this Danish retailer, we ask questions and here we will ask all the questions. You can’t work with marketing strategy if you don’t understand the brand strategy. So we are going to connect the company we work with to the consumers and the supporting team. That’s what we’re going to do. 

What is different about U.S. businesses and those you work with in other countries? 

What we are seeing with the Danish retailer has been really funny because the brand execution in Europe is so totally different. Social media is so huge in the U.S. and I am an old guy that used newspapers. But it forces me not to sit and smoke cigars. It forces me to stay on top of what is going on. It goes so fast. 

What are common mistakes that new entrepreneurs or executives make in business? 

What happens is they have these products and no idea about how to sell. The second thing is they don’t ask enough questions. And they have no idea about financials. 

Have you ever made an angel investment? 

I don’t do investing at all. That’s not how I manage my money. I’m really giving a gift to help (the Big Idea Project). 

So, explain your strategy for getting involved in the Triangle startup ecosystem. 

I am a business person, not a programmer—I understand business and I ask the questions that need to be asked. What I don’t want to do is get involved with a lot of people. I’m not a teacher. I’m a participant. I want to get involved with a few companies and stay involved. I want engagements that are all long term. 

What will your relationship with the Big Idea team look like? 

I want to meet with the people on a regular basis. I want to have a cup of coffee and just talk. We get very close to people’s lives. Our connections don’t turn into business connections—they turn into friendships.