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Economic Development is . . . (increasing the flow) of capital through the community and reducing its leakage.

Ole’s Little Company

A police officer stopped Ole for speeding and asked to see his driver’s license.

Indignantly, Ole replied, “You guys need to get your act together… Yesterday, you took my license away and today you expect me to show it to you.”

A different Ole, Ole Christiansen was a carpenter in the village of Billund in Denmark. In 1932 he took a risk and started a company. Right from the beginning, his company was innovative; they built houses in the summer season and furniture during the winter.

Right out of the gate Ole’s business was devastated by the Great Depression. He was forced to switch production from houses to smaller and less expensive “necessities” – ironing boards, milking stools and stepladders. When he initially converted he had some success – selling the “necessity” products. He employed 7 other out-of-work carpenters; they shared a passion and were all enthusiastic and derived great pleasure from creating new things.

All four of Ole’s sons joined the business, but it was 12-year old Kirk who took the most genuine interest (because of the wooden toys that were made from the scraps of other products). Ole had a personal motto – “Der bedste er ikke for godt” or “Only the best is worthy” which his son Kirk wrote on a sign and nailed on the wall above the employees’ work stations.

As the Great Depression deepened in Denmark it caused many businesses and banks to close their doors; people lost their jobs, homes, and savings. Ole’s sales of “necessities” had come to a screeching halt. He had to find a new niche to save his business. And he found it in the least likely of products – the scrap pile of wooden toys. No one would have imagined that the demand for children’s toys would continue to remain strong even during the hardest of economic times.

By 1936 the company had a set of 42 different toys. In the early 1940s the company again innovated by making plastic injection-molded toys. The first product was the ‘Automatic Binding Bricks’. It allowed children to create and build whatever they could imagine. Ole’s company (if you haven’t already guessed it) is where the iconic LEGO building block was born.

One would think with all the huge popularity that LEGO has had over the years that it would be nearly impossible to shake financially – one would be wrong. In 2003 they again faced a near fatal crisis – losing appeal due to the rapid growth of video games. The LEGO Group faced a budget deficit of $220 million, and had to let go of one thousand employees to stay in business.

Again they refocused the strategy of the company, this time embracing the same video games that threatened them. They launched their own branch of digital design software and interactive games (resulting in LEGO Star Wars). This decision paid off fast, digging out of a $300 million loss in 2004 to growing to an astounding $280 million in revenue in 2007.

What Ole started in 1932 is definitely not an Ole & Lena joke by any stretch of the imagination. Despite facing many obstacles and traumas through the years, Ole’s carpentry business has become a remarkable example of re-invention. Tama County can strive to emulate Ole’s company as we too look to re-invent our own economy one business at a time.

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