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The Aarhus University distinguished Alumnus 2014

Since 1928, Aarhus University has celebrated its birthday with the annual celebration. On the occasion of the university’s 80th anniversary in 2008, the university established a distinguished alumnus award. Each year, the award honours a graduate of Aarhus University whose impressive achievements have drawn positive attention to the university. The recipient of the award must be a graduate who has made an extraordinary contribution to society through his or her work, either nationally or internationally.

2014.09.22 | Aarhus BSS

Foto: Lars Kruse, AU Kommunikation

LEGO - back to the bricks

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, the 2014 Aarhus University Distinguished Alumnus, rescued LEGO from a downward spiral through respect for the company’s core identity. As a young and rather inexperienced CEO, Knudstorp succeeded in restoring a confused company to its true self: the little plastic brick and the endless possibilities for creative play. Today, Knudstorp is considered one of the world’s greatest business leaders, and he’s constantly being offered positions at companies all over the world. But LEGO has become a calling, explains the AU alum who was originally convinced that he’d pursue an academic career.

 

Are you familiar with the little collectible LEGO figures in shiny little bags near the supermarket checkout counter that kids beg their parents for?
Jørgen Vig Knudstorp’s business card is one of these little LEGO guys. With a full beard and glasses, the red LEGO logo and his own name on the chest and contact information on his back.

But this is where the resemblance ends.
Not only is the LEGO figure only four centimetres high, while Knudstorp is not far off two metres. There’s nothing miniature about LEGO Group or its history.
In this story, Knudstorp figures as the company’s saviour.

When he came on board as managing director ten years ago, the business had massive debts and seemed to be heading straight towards bankruptcy.   After just three years as CEO, he was named Denmark’s best leader, and today he is considered the epitome of the kind of leader global corporate giants want to head their empires.

Dreamed of an academic career

But back then, Knudstorp thought his stint in the corporate world would be a short one. His greatest dream was to pursue a career doing research and teaching at Aarhus University. His alma mater, where he’d done his undergraduate work and a PhD economics and management, a field he was- and still is - passionately interested in. And this was still the plan when he was offered a job as business developer in the well-known toy company in 2001.

“When LEGO contacted me, I was living in Copenhagen, where I was working at a consultancy firm. But in the back of my mind, I was always planning to return to Aarhus University. The years I spent out in the world of practice were just meant to make me a better academic,” explains Knudstorp.

Knudstorp kept the dream of an academic career alive by subscribing to mountains of academic economics journals and teaching a course at the university in addition to his consultancy job.
“I’ve always been really engaged in my field - and still am. And I’ve certainly needed my academic expertise as an economist. Not least in connection with the work of reconstructing LEGO. So I really was intending to return to academia. But the encounter with LEGO Group became a crossroads for me, even though I didn’t quite want to admit it to begin with.”

The journey back

There was something almost magical about the drive to the job interview from the country’s capital to the small town on the moors of Jutland.
That’s how he describes it today. As a journey of return. That also brought him back to himself. The reunion with the Legoland of his childhood, meeting LEGOs owner and managing director and the description of the task at hand appealed to the two most fundamental aspects of the character of the boy and the man Jørgen Vig Knudstorp: the creative and the systematic. Sides of himself he can trace back to his childhood home - to a mother who was a colourful kindergarten teacher and a father who was an engineer with a flair for structure. The challenges Knudstorp saw at LEGO would take both qualities to solve: imagination coupled with strategy and objective analysis.  

“I had a lot of fun the first few years - as a business developer, I was sent all over the entire LEGO galaxy. From amusement parks to production and product development all over the world. It gave me a perfect introduction to the company, and I also met all of the top executives and developed a close working relationship with the owner and the executive management. In fact, I got a 360 degree view of the whole company and all the challenges in it, and this let me develop a strategic perspective.

Taking the reins

After just two years, Knudstorp got a strong signal from the executive management. They wanted him to remain at LEGO and to take a central role in operations. He’s given the title acting CFO. And one Friday in December 2003, as Knustorp was on his way out the door to spend a much-needed weekend with his family, he received a message from Mads Øvlisen, chairman of the board at the time, and owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen.
“They said that I could start thinking about forming a completely new executive management team. Headed by me. And so the weekend didn’t turn out to be quite as relaxing as I’d imagined. That Christmas, I wasn’t actually very comfortable about the huge responsibility that I would be taking on. But Kjeld Kirk help me a lot by getting more actively involved in daily operations so that I could operate behind the lines. In reality, he protected me for nine months, until I was able to come forward in September 2004 and say: ‘So here I am. I’m the new managing director.’

At the age of 34, Knudstorp went from managing 6-8 employees to managing 10,000. And the dream of an academic career was replaced by a new goal of saving LEGO by getting the company to focus on its core identity again: LEGO bricks and creative play.

“I saw a company that had lost its identity by spreading itself too thin. Suddenly, watches and clothes had to be part of the LEGO product range. But why? With all these different products, there was confusion about what LEGO Group actually stood for. And that means that the company starts to doubt what it actually stands for, and what the point of it all is. Some people were even calling LEGO an entertainment company or a media company. But LEGO is a toy company that’s founded on something totally unique - the LEGO brick. And that was the focus I got started on recreating.”

The crossroads of the past and the future

The Knudstorp cure meant layoffs. Relocation of production to cheaper countries. Sale of buildings and sale of a controlling interest in the amusement parks. But it also meant a reinterpretation of the company’s core identity. Today, Knudstorp speaks of LEGO 2.2, which is about bringing LEGO into the digital age without losing its connection to the physical world.

Knudstorp describes this vision as standing at the crossroads between respect for the past and the courage to renew. It’s about identifying the values that are fundamental to a society, a civilisation or - in this case - a business like LEGO - and interpreting them in a modern context. For example, this reinterpretation took place when LEGO switched from wood to plastic in 1960 while still holding on to the core idea - the unique product and creative play.

“Today, people ask whether it’s time to drop the plastic toys and just make digital products instead. But we’re remaining in version 2 - the plastic - and we’re just adding an extra layer, the digital space. At the same time, we’re holding on to our values: that there should be an aha-experience in every product, and that LEGO is about teaching children that they can do things themselves. And absolutely crucial: That we have to keep doing things better all the time.”

Knudstorp speaks with passion. In a recent radio interview, he said that he has found his mission in life and that he wants to stay at LEGO. And he’s not afraid to see that his job makes him happy.
“In one way or another, I think I’ve found my calling here. I really believe that LEGO helps make children more creative, and I also think that it’s fantastic to be part of bringing this dimension out into the world. There’s still so much potential, and it feels very meaningful to be part of this. And if one day I think: ‘Hello, I’m really not contributing anything at all to this company any more’ - I hope that I’ll know that it’s time for me to go.”

Written by Bjørg Tulinius, btu@au.dk

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