Ulricehamn is quiet, quaint and home to just over 9,000 people, set in a part of western Sweden that is strained by industry closures and talent migration. But this town is bucking the trend – here is based a company that not only received the 2014 Big Export Award from the King of Sweden but keeps expanding without outgrowing its hometown.
“I’ve had my eyes on this place since I was a little girl,” says Annica Eklund, CEO and part owner of Bolon as we drive up to Villa Björkudden. The beautiful white house a ten-minute drive from Ulricehamn stands among the autumn leaves and reeds along the waterfront. With its modern interiors and proximity to the beautiful landscape, it is a perfect spot to entertain international guests. “A client from New York said that he felt as relaxed after two days here as he does after two weeks of vacation,” Annica says as she shows me the rest of the house.
“Granddad!” Annica’s 20-year-old daughter Linn runs down the stairs to greet Lars Eklund, who’s just walked through the front door. Lars was the second generation Eklund to run Bolon, the company having been started in 1949 by his father Nils-Erik manufacturing rag rugs from leftover nylon and cotton strips. One night at a dance at the town hotel in Ulricehamn, Lars met someone. “I had danced every dance with a specific girl, but she suddenly decided to dance with someone else. I looked over the room and saw Monica ... and I haven’t danced with anyone else since.”
In 1966 Nils-Erik passed away, and the same year the couple had their first child – Marie. Three years later Annica was born. “I was so young, not much older than Linn is today, when my father died. And all of a sudden I was running a company,” says Lars.
Bolon changed direction under Lars’ leadership. As a keen camper he had noticed a need for a tough, exterior covering and Bolon’s lightweight range was created. In 1993, the foundation for today’s product was set as Bolon started making woven vinyl flooring.
Marie and Annica practically grew up on the factory floor, but none of them had any ambitions in taking over the family business. “I had my mind set on being a professional show-jumper,” says Annica. “And Marie wanted to work in fashion. Our parents never put pressure on us to come work for them.” Annica moved to the south of Sweden to pursue her equestrian dreams, while Marie moved to 7 Florence to study fashion. But eventually, they found their way back to their roots.
In 2003 Annica took over as CEO and Marie became Marketing Director. The same year, when they were travelling in Italy, they visited an Armani store and flicked through one of the catalogues when they made an exciting discovery ... There was Bolon flooring on every page.
Re-branding the camping rug business as a designer flooring company wasn’t an easy task, and the sisters’ ideas raised more than a few eyebrows on the way. But today, after successful collaborations with brands, architects and designers such as Missoni, Tom Dixon, Cappellini and Jean Nouvel, it’s obvious that the sisters’ strategy has succeeded.
“Me and Linn went to designer Matthew Williamson’s show at London Fashion Week where Bolon flooring covered the catwalk. It was so surreal, I had to pinch myself – who would have thought that a flooring company could take us to Fashion Week?” says Annica.
Family comes first, then the business. But they often overlap. “Our family and business has always kind of intertwined. When I’d given birth to Linn, Marie and Dad came and saw us at the hospital on their way to a trade fair in Germany – the Bolon truck was parked outside."
Linn is shortlisted to take over the company, as the oldest cousin and with an impending degree in fashion business from the Istituto Marangoni in Paris. During the interview she often corrects or adds something to the story. Bolon is in her DNA.
But being a family business, aren’t there conflicts and arguments? “Since we’ve shared the vision for what Bolon should be it’s been really seamless,” says Annica. “And Dad has almost never complained about the re-vamping of the company.”
“Well, I did have some opinions when they changed the logo. Coca-Cola wouldn’t change theirs, would they?” says Lars. “But I could never imagine Bolon growing as big as it is today, and that’s really thanks to Annica and Marie.” “It’s exciting to think about what will happen to Bolon after us. We trans- formed it from a camping rug company to an international design business. There are no limits to what Bolon can become,” says Annica.
How would grandfather Nils-Erik feel about what has become of his rag rugs? “He’s looking down on us feeling really happy with what we have accomplished. I’m sure of it,” says Lars.