1920 - 1995
Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the third of Ole Kirk Kristiansen’s five children, becomes the second-generation owner of the LEGO Group. He is an active player right from the outset of the company history. He recalls one of his earliest memories: “My first contribution to the company – not that I’m proud of it – was when my brother Karl Georg and I lit the glue heater. Unfortunately some wood shavings caught fire – and the whole building burned to the ground.” That was in 1924. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen was four years old. By 1932, at the early beginnings of the toy adventure, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen is already involved in the company and early on learns the values his father places on the products.
The duck story
This is the story about how Ole Kirk Kristiansen´s focus on quality is handed from farther to son in Godtfred Kirk Christiansen´s own words: One evening, when I came into the office, I said to my father: “It’s been a good day today, Dad. We’ve earned a little more.” “Oh,” says Dad, “what do you mean, lad?” “Well, I’ve just been to the station with two boxes of our toy ducks for the Danish Co-op. And normally they get three coats of varnish – clear varnish – but this time I only gave them two. I thought we could cut our costs because it was the Co‑op. So I saved the business a bit of money.” He looked at me: “Godtfred, don’t you know that’s wrong? I want you to drive up to the station and fetch those boxes back. Unpack them and give the ducks another coat of varnish. Then you’ll repack them and take them back to the station. You’re not going to bed until the work’s done – and you're getting no help. You’ll do it all on your own.” There was no arguing with Dad. And it was a lesson for me about what quality meant.
Like his father, Godtfred Kirk studies at Haslev Technical College on the main Danish island of Zealand. His schoolwork includes sketches of a number of models for toy cars, which he sends home as suggestions for new products during his stay at the school from 1939 to 1940. Later Godtfred Kirk assumes more and more of the responsibility in the company. First, on his 30th birthday in 1950, he is appointed junior managing director and seven years later, he becomes managing director before getting the sole responsibility for the company after Ole Kirk Kristiansen dies in 1958. During his long stint in the LEGO Group Godtfred Kirk further develops the LEGO® idea and creates LEGO System of Play. Not only does he systemize play, he also coordinates the sales and advertising effort to the smallest detail.
The sales trip
Godtfred Kirk Christiansen is keen to gather valuable insight on the business throughout his life. As a junior managing director he embarks on a sales trip in 1951 that besides showing his resilience and determination also gives him a better understanding of the toy market. Godtfred Kirk has employed two sales representatives to travel round Denmark selling the product and explaining the potential of LEGO bricks to retailers, but they are having little success. In addition, in springtime they report back that it is a waste of time visiting customers until after the summer holidays because “toy shops and department stores won’t buy their Christmas stock until after the holidays”. So, Godtfred Kirk makes the tour himself, accompanied by his wife, Edith Kirk Christiansen. They visit all the customers in southern Jutland. At first, Edith Kirk Christiansen sits in the car knitting, while Godtfred Kirk talks to customers, but soon she is busy rewriting the orders her husband has quickly scribbled in the shop. Apart from winning a whole string of orders, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen has seen for himself the importance of how products are displayed in the shops.
Godtfred Kirk Christiansen resigns
In 1952, Ole Kirk Kristiansen suddenly gets the idea that the factory should be expanded. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen disagrees and resigns when his father points out that he is the boss, while Godtfred Kirk Christiansen’s job is to raise money for the expansion. Father and son later patch up the resignation issue and Godtfred Kirk resumes his duties.
The woodworking factory burns again
On Thursday, February 4, 1960, part of the company’s woodworking factory burns down. It presents Godtfred Kirk with a difficult decision: To continue manufacturing wooden toys or to concentrate exclusively on plastic bricks with their unlimited play potential? The next day Godtfred Kirk Christiansen makes up his mind: the company will stop making wooden toys and in future give its full attention to the LEGO brick and LEGO System of Play. The wooden toys are never sold outside Denmark as opposed to LEGO bricks, which are creating a name for themselves in Western Europe, especially after the company set up its first sales subsidiary in Germany in 1956. Two of Godtfred Kirk´s brothers cannot agree that this is the right thing to do and consequently Karl Georg Kristiansen, technical director of plastic production, and Gerhardt Kirk Christiansen, technical director of wooden toy production, decide it is time to leave the company. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen buys their shares in the business and continues as sole owner.
The 10 LEGO Characteristics
Godtfred Kirk Christiansen spends many hours drawing up a set of guidelines, a LEGO constitution, which can ensure systematic product development and consistent communication for shoppers and retailers: In 1963, he announces his 10 LEGO characteristics for the LEGO product at a conference on the theme “LSP – LEGO System Perspective”. The 10 basic characteristics prove a strength. They permeate company thinking to such an extent that they become the very core of development of the LEGO product and determine how things are done.
During the 1970s, a generational change is underway in the LEGO Group. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen leaves the role as managing director in 1973 to become chairman of the Board of directors of LEGO System A/S. Vagn Holck Andersen acts as managing director from 1973 to 1979, serving as link between Godtfred Kirk and his son Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, who eventually takes over as CEO in 1979. Even though Godtfred Kirk takes a step back from day to day management, his presence is still felt in the company. LEGO employees from back in the days remember how you would often meet Godtfred Kirk as he walked through the offices in late evenings catching up on the state of the company. Godtfred Kirk holds the position of chairman of the board of directors until April 1993. Two years later on July 13th he passes away.