Godtfred Kirk Christiansen
“The Town that Toys Built”
Billund, Denmark, was once described as a "God-forsaken railway stopping point where nothing could possibly survive." Today, the town's railway station has been replaced by an expanding airport; and Billund, known in Denmark as "The Town that Toys Built," is one of the largest attractions in the country, ranking a debatable second only to Copenhagen's famous Tivoli Gardens and attracting nearly one million visitors annually.
Billund's remarkable turnaround is the brainchild of Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the man who patented a plastic toy known all over the world as the LEGO brick. In the early 1960s, GKC, as he is known, decided to build a new land, a wonderland, a place where fantasy would have no limits. The result is the 11-acre LEGOLAND park in Billund, a miniworld where one can walk through a typical Danish village as it might have looked more than 50 years ago, view a perfect replica of the Mount Rushmore Monument…created with over 1.5 million LEGO bricks.
Life has not been easy for GKC. Born into poverty in 1920, and with little formal education, he became the business mind behind the LEGO group of companies' world wide. His father, Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter, founded LEGO in 1932 out of necessity. His Billund Woodworking and Carpentry Shop, which built houses in the summer season and furniture during the winter, was severely affected by the Great Depression. Ole switched production to the necessities - ironing boards, milking stools, stepladders - and wooden toys made from the scraps of other products. His four sons joined the business, but it was 12-year old GKC who took a particular interest.
In two years, the popularity of the wooden toys surpassed that of the other items, and Ole began to market them under the name LEGO, a combination of two Danish words, "leg godt," meaning "play well." It would not be until sometime later that the Christiansen's would learn the Latin meaning, "I study, I put together."
Following World War II, the LEGO company became the first in Denmark to buy a plastics injection molding machine for toy production. In ten years, GKC perfected the stud-and-tub coupling system of the LEGO brick and, in 1958, received his patent. It was also a sad year for Godtfred Kirk Christiansen because his father died.
By 1960, LEGO employees numbered about 450. The same year, the wooden toy store was destroyed by fire…for the third time! It was decided to cease production of wooden toys and concentrate exclusively on plastics. Through an informal management style and an ability to persist and motivate, GKC was building a remarkable, privately-owned organization. In 1961, the LEGO group "invented" the wheel; in 1966, the train, with its own rails and a 4.5 volt motor; and in 1968, a long-time dream came true as the gates were opened to LEGOLAND Park. Expansion and innovation followed with operations being established in nearly 20 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America. Gearwheels joined dollhouse furniture, ships and minifigures in the variety of LEGO toys. And the third generation, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, joined the LEGO management team.
Today, LEGO remains a privately-held company. GKC doubts that his high product standards and ethical code would be upheld by public shareholders, and he constantly reminds those around him of the motto which hung on the wall of his father's workshop, "Only the best is good enough for our children," a motto which he lived and worked by throughout his life.