Over the past seven years the young Dane, Simon Lichtenberg, has built up a business conglomerate in China consisting of 14 exclusive furniture stores, a computer company, lumber imports, shipping, and most recently, a new Jan Utzon-designed furniture factory located outside Shanghai.
The Danish ambassador to China has many kind words for Simon Lichtenberg and he describes him as being "the most talented Danish businessman in China." Now, the Danish government is about to give him financial aid.
But Lichtenberg has a secret. Behind his successful Danish company we find a holding company based on the Isle of Man, a British tax shelter. And behind that company, we find [ties to]Tvind.
The young Dane welcomes his visitors in fluent Chinese.
With firm handshakes Simon Lichtenberg greets his Chinese business associates, offers them Danish butter cookies from Kjeldsen, all the while a musical trio comprising a violin, a cello and a flute entertain with classical music.
The invited Chinese nod their approvals as they...tour the exclusive two-story Danish furniture gallery that 33-year-old Simon Lichtenberg opened this week right on Shanghai's most fashionable shopping street, Huaihai Lu.
The store...beams with Danish design at its very best. The store has been decorated in black and...the store's slogan [is] "European Living."
On monitors built into the store walls...customers can make their own decorating choices. High-tech gadgets are a rare sight in Communist China, where the majority of commerce still takes place in small shops and at street vendors' stands.
Outside the store, Chinese workers in their blue work clothes look...at the store windows. They know that they will never be able to afford Danish luxury furniture. That pleasure is reserved for China's new class of Nouveau-Riche. But this class is continuously getting bigger...
In five years, [Simon Lichtenberg] has succeeded in opening 14 furniture galleries in China under the name of "Bo Concept," each with a wide selection with anything from "Club 8 to "Egetæpper."
This is the sort of thing that Danish exporters dream of, an immense business success. And Simon Lichtenberg's name is to be found on all of it. His image and signature have been printed into the glossy catalogues one finds at the store entrances, on [the store's]...TV sets [and] Bo Concepts' new ads that are now running on Chinese television..Lichtenberg is shown presenting his new business...
Apart from the furniture chain, the Danish businessman also owns a shipping company, a lumber import business, a computer company and a furniture factory that was opened on the outskirts of Shanghai this past November.
The factory blueprints were drawn by Jan Utzon, which has a supply contract with Swedish furniture giant IKEA.
So it is not without reason that Denmark's top representatives in China, Christopher Bo Bramsen, Ambassador and Peter Weis, Consul-General speak warmly of Simon Lichtenberg. They have referred to him as the most talented Danish businessman in the world's most populous nation. And they are always willing to show up when Simon Lichtenberg needs someone to cut an inaugural ribbon somewhere. This way they are able to show the Chinese that he enjoys the full backing of the Danish state. In China this sort of thing is "golden."
Back in Denmark, Simon Lichtenberg is also [doing well]. Soon, Lichtenberg will receive a sum amounting to millions of DKK that is to be spent for expanding the production facilities at [his] new furniture plant. This is happening through a loan from "The Fund for the Industrialization of The Developing Countries" (IFU) which is controlled by the Ministry of Development.
It is hard to imagine that this man might have anything to do with a controversial Danish school group that... that started to send its students abroad...back in the seventies.
But Simon Lichtenberg has a secret [sic]. And to understand both him and his astounding success we need to turn back time to the beginning of it all--a pasture in Western Jutland in the mid-1970s.
Most people join Tvind through their own decisions, but Simon Lichtenberg has been part of Tvind since his early childhood.
He came along with his parents to Tvind's headquarters in Ulfborg. All this happened before the famous Tvind windmill was constructed and before Tvind's founder, Mogens Amdi Petersen went into hiding.
Simons's parents, Jonas and Else Lichtenberg quit their bourgeois lives in order to join the great "pedagogic project" that was in the making at Western Jutland.
Tvind's timing was perfect. The offer of an alternative education made an impression...Ritt Bjerregaard, the Danish Minister of Education even appointed Mogens Amdi Petersen as an advisor...
Simon Lichtenberg's parents were welcomed with open arms by the Tvind people. Not only did they possess the correct left-wing attitude, but they were also highly intelligent and very well-educated. Jonas Lichtenberg was a physics professors and held masters degrees in the fields of mathematics, chemistry and astronomy.
He was also the author of several math text books... Else Lichtenberg had previously been employed as a school counselor. The Lichtenberg's quickly settled in at Tvind and over time they joined Tvind's economic commonwealth called "The Teachers' Group."
At this time they also accepted that [many]...decisions regarding their private lives were to be made at large group meetings, which were [often]...presided over by Mogens Amdi Petersen, Tvind's ideological leader. It was at these meetings that Mogens Amdi Petersen... [Peterson spoke about]...the world-wide revolution and "the true pedagogic understanding."
...As a student at Friskolen in Ulfborg [Lichtenberg]...talent soon became clear to everyone. Nobody could doubt the fact that he had inherited his parents' intelligence. All the while, he also showed the necessary understanding for the common good.
After Ulfborg, Simon followed his parents to Zimbabwe.
Here, he saw his parents, along with other idealistic Danes, constructing some of the first Tvind projects in Africa.
...Simon Lichtenberg's further education took place at various Tvind schools in Denmark, culminating with a stint at The International People's College...
Like other good students he went on to become a solidarity worker at Tvind projects in Guinea-Bissau.
Simon Lichtenberg's upbringing in Tvind and his obvious smarts made him interesting to Mogens Amdi Petersen...[sic]
Amdi's idea was to create an international business empire that could ensure Tvind's further expansion. Amdi referred to the project as [a] "Money-Making Enterprise," according to Tvind sources. The "alternative pedagogical commonwealth"...
...Through the 1980s the critics of the "commonwealth" had gotten louder, and through the media teachers and students that defected were telling stories of brainwashing, collectivism and slave labor both at the schools and on the trips abroad.
Each new case weakened the authorities' goodwill towards Tvind, and at internal meetings with the Teachers' Group, Amdi gave speeches in which he prepared the members that the day would come when Tvind would no longer receive any government funding.
...Selling donated clothes and having students sell postcards on the streets were no longer enough for Amdi to keep his vision alive. Therefore, he commanded that Tvind was to begin business operations throughout the world.
On every continent, the movement that in the beginning had just offered alternative schooling was to turn into a regular business...
The Distribution Group [Fordelingsgruppen], which consisted of Amdi and his girlfriend Kirsten Larsen started to seek out various venues for the project...
"Amdi meticulously selected the people that were sent out to each continent with a sack of money in their hand. They were then supposed to multiply [his] investment" according to a Tvind source...
...Simon Lichtenberg...arrived in the megalopolis that is Shanghai in the summer of 1993...
He made his first money selling lumber from Africa. But for a long time his business was in a slump. Chinese corporate culture is difficult... Business deals are only made if you know your partner well. And in 1993, Shanghai's great economic boom was just getting underway.
"I was completely new, it was hard, but I stuck it out and worked hard to get everything," Simon Lichtenberg said in an interview with "Berlingske on Sunday" at his office on the fifth floor of the Tseng Chow World Trade Building in central Shanghai.
Lichtenberg really started to get his business together after he was accepted by the local Fudan University. His great intelligence enabled him to master the complex Chinese language in record time.
At the university he also met the love of his life, Chinese Felice Fan whom he later married.
Finally he was getting integrated (into Chinese society) and at the same time, a great idea came to him.
He had noticed that all foreign furniture sold in Shanghai was rather pompous with gold borders and what not. He convinced himself that the only reason that the Chinese bought this kind of furniture was simply because more streamlined and modern design wasn't available.
In 1995 he contacted various Danish furniture manufacturers to see if they were interested in trying out the by now booming Chinese market. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Ten companies agreed to send samples of their products to China. Simon Lichtenberg got hold of a container and soon the Danish furniture arrived in Shanghai.
The young Dane set up the furniture in a showroom which he had borrowed from a Chinese furniture manufacturer. The Chinese were absolutely thrilled. And from here things moved into the fast lane.
In 1995, Simon Lichtenberg opened his first furniture store after having established a "joint venture" with Club 8 Furniture of Denmark. At the inauguration, Christopher Bo Bramsen, at that time consul-general in Shanghai cut the red ribbon.
He was impressed with the enterprising young Dane whom he also developed a personal relationship with. It turned out that they had a common hobby. They both play the saxophone.
In 1995 Christopher Bo Bramsen moved to Beijing. But the 56-year old senior civil servant, who has a past as a diplomat in both Washington D.C. and Brussels has also been the official Danish representative at another festive occasion held by Lichtenberg.
The same year as Simon Lichtenberg opened his first retail store in Shanghai his business started moving in a new direction. This didn't happen in Shanghai, but far away on the tiny, lush green Isle of Man located between England and Ireland. The island is not only known for its low 20% tax, it is also infamous for being a place to locate one's company if one wishes to keep everything secret.
On January 25, 1995 "Trayton Holdings Ltd." was incorporated in the coastal town of Ramsey. It became the holding company for Simon Lichtenberg's Chinese companies. According to the latest available corporate information Trayton Holdings has two presidents, one with a Danish name and one with an English name. But they are both "as Danish as pear pie." And they are both long-time members of Tvind's economic commonwealth" the Teachers' Group, that is.
One of them is Niels Peter Holst. He is known as Tvind's chief accountant and has for a number of years been responsible for accounting at Tvind's schools, companies and funds.
The other one is Christie Pipps. She is one of Tvind's international business leaders. Her comrades at Tvind however don't call Christie Pipps by her English name, but Kirsten "Pip." A nickname she has had for years.
...Originally her name was Kirsten Fuglsbjerg according to a search that "Berlingske on Sunday" carried out at the Central National Registry in Copenhagen. ..."Kirsten Fuglsbjerg"...emigrated to Britain in 1992 under the name of Christie Pipps.
Before moving to England, Christie Pipps officially lived at the address of Tvind's original headquarters on 8, Skovkærvej in Ulfborg, Western Jutland. The very same place that Simon Lichtenberg spent most of his school days.
Documents in the possession of "Berlingske on Sunday" show that Christie Pipps doesn't just use her English name, [which] according to Tvind sources serves the purpose of hiding her association with Tvind.
The British authorities know Christie Pipps very well. According to Tvind sources she heads the Tvind company Argyll Smith that is incorporated in another British tax shelter the Channel Island of Jersey.
Over a number of years, this company leased out school buildings and wooden ships to Tvind's schools in England. But in 1998 the British government closed the schools.
This took place after a long investigation, [which] gave clear indications that Tvind was secretly taking government education subsidies given to it and then funneling them out of the country through the Argyll Smith Company.
Both Niels Peter Holst and Christie Pipps, or Kirsten Fuglsbjerg, are described within Tvind as two of Mogens Amdi Petersen's safest cards. Two faithful plebs that would never dream of betraying either Tvind nor Amdi.
The holding company that they head was established with just £3 to its name...
After Simon Lichtenberg opened his first retail store in Shanghai in 1995 the business really began to take off. The...Danish design furniture sold out almost immediately and soon Lichtenberg could open his next store...
In Shanghai, Lichtenberg expanded his furniture success story at the same time sales at his African lumber imports business was increasing. In just a few years the businesses had grown so large that Lichtenberg needed a software program to control his warehouse. As none were available in China at the time, the enterprising Dane immediately got the idea for his next company. He got in touch with a large American computer corporation and became their official sales agent for China. Lichtenberg's company specialized in developing specific software solutions for both Chinese and foreign companies and organizations. Kim Hansen, also from Denmark became responsible for the company's day-to-day operations.
...Kim Hansen is a long-time member of Tvind's Teachers' Group where he is known as Tvind's greatest expert in the field of computer programming. According to Tvind sources, it was Kim Hansen who developed the program "The Modern Teaching Method" that is used at Tvind's schools.
Kim Hansen is also the man behind Tvind's internet encryption system, according to (our) sources. This was started when, in the mid-1990s defectors were taking...Tvind documents with them as they left...
Even though Simon Lichtenberg now headed three companies, he saw no reason to slow down.
As foreign investments in China were getting larger yearly and hundreds of new skyscrapers were shooting up into the Shanghai sky, the furniture chain expanded.
Branches were opened in Beijing, the country's capital and in the major cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The Danish furniture had become a sought-after brand name among the Chinese upper class. Bo Concept furniture equaled prestige.
And Simon Lichtenberg could offer them everything in the field of home furnishings--everything apart from cheap, good-quality sofas, that is.
This is why he started developing his own sofa production at a small furniture workshop with two employees.
Simon Lichtenberg's Chinese business ventures reached a pinnacle...on November 24th of last year.
That day he welcomed 250 invited guests to the inauguration of his own furniture plant in the city of Minghang, just outside Shanghai.
Among the more prominent guests were representatives of the local Communist party and Simon Lichtenberg's old acquaintance, ambassador Christopher Bo Bramsen who had made the trip down from Beijing...
Wearing a suit, a white shirt and a floral arrangement in his lapel the ambassador signed his name into the 7,000 square meter factory's guest book.
Simon Lichtenberg proudly showed the guests around both the part of the factory where the wooden frames for the couches were assembled, as well as another area where the fabric was cut and sewn on to the sofas.
The ambassador was also present when the red ribbon was cut at a podium covered with bright red carpet. And to show Denmark's support for Simon Lichtenberg...he gave an improvised speech. Portions of it follows:
"The Danes are well-known for venturing out into the world, this is something we have done for many years as Vikings when we both sailed and traded. And it is no coincidence that Shanghai previously had many Danes living here for many years. We are now seeing a new generation of Danes coming to both Shanghai and other parts of China, and although they may not be sailing they are trading out here. That takes innovation and creativity, two qualities that Simon Lichtenberg possess."
After the more formal opening, Simon Lichtenberg offered Sprite, pretzels and Kjeldsen butter cookies.
Meanwhile guests were moving around, looking at the Danish factory...
The factory with its glass front is designed by Jan Utzon, the son of one of Denmark's greatest architects, Jørn Utzon.
Jan Utzon had previously done work for Tvind. Apart from the blueprints for Tvind's International HQ in Zimbabwe, he was also the one who came up with the idea of painting the Tvind windmill in its current red and white pattern.
Since the inauguration of the factory...the production of sofas has reached approximately 5,000 per month. Two shifts amounting to a total of 180 Chinese workers dressed in light brown uniforms continuously toil away at the factory.
But Simon Lichtenberg has yet to reach his goal.
His aim is to double the factory's production output over the next couple of years so that it will reach 10,000 sofas per month. It is to achieve this expansion that Simon Lichtenberg is currently conducting negotiations with "The Fund for the Industrialization of The Developing Countries" (IFU) in order to get a government loan. The fund under Minister Development...puts capital into Danish Third World investments. Simon Lichtenberg is expecting to receive the loan within the next couple of weeks.
"We don't have it finalized yet so I shouldn't say too much but we are very close to reaching a deal for a loan to be used on expanding the factory's production output. IFU is supposed to step in soon, some time during March or April," says Simon Lichtenberg who has already purchased property neighboring his factory in preparation for the expansion.
To handle the increasing administration work, Lichtenberg employs a veteran bookkeeper. She is Danish, and her name is Lissie Schmidt. She handles the paperwork for both the factory and the 14 Bo Concept stores.
Along with Christie Pipps, Niels Peter Holst, Kim Hansen and Simon Lichtenberg himself, Lissie Schmidt is a known member of Tvind's economic commonwealth, The Teachers' Group. Before Lissie Schmidt came to China, she was in charge of day-to-day business at Tvind projects in Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe among other places.
She too can expect to be busy...Simon Lichtenberg's ambitions go beyond the furniture plant. He is planning to have a total of around 25 Bo Concept stores over the next years.
"Our ambition is to create a larger and larger business. I have a goal of a 20% increase per year in both turnover and income. In the Chinese market, these are realistic growth rates. There is a large interest in a modern lifestyle and of course "European Living" is our slogan, he says.
He is seated behind his desk in the fifth floor office. It is from this large, well-lit space, furnished with Danish design furniture, Bang and Olfson stereo equipment and sketches of the Utzon-designed furniture factory on the wall that Lichtenberg controls his businesses. His cell phone is only slightly larger than a matchbox and on the carpet we find the company's logo along with some Chinese characters.
Simon Lichtenberg wears a newly ironed shirt, gray tie, pointy leather shoes and an Omega watch wrapped around his wrist. He doesn't look like somebody with anything to hide, and he is happy to tell us about his businesses.
But when Berlingske on Sunday for the first time asks about his business associations with Tvind, he denies everything.
"My business has nothing to do with Tvind. How on earth do rumors like that start," he asks us back.
Berlingske on Sunday presents him with the documentation.
Nervously, he begins removing his golden wedding ring and gets out of his office chair.
"Could you turn that thing off?" he asks, clearly annoyed, and points to the tape recorder on the table.
Simon Lichtenberg clearly doesn't like it when people are interested in who is behind his company. He says that "no one, not even my closest associates" have ever asked any questions about the Man-based holding company."
Again and again he rejects our questions. These are "private affairs." This is "confidential."
But he has to admit that Tvind's economic elite is represented in Trayton Holdings Ltd.
"They are people that I trust," he says.
However, Lichtenberg denies that he was originally sent to China as part of Tvind's plans for expanding its empire. He says that he personally came here in 1993 on his own and out of his own free will.
But he doesn't hide his sympathies for Tvind.
"I know many, many people in the Teachers' Group and I have great respect for the work that they do. The reason that I have been able to take Trayton to where it is today is because I received a good education at Tvind's schools in Denmark," says the young Danish businessman.
Effective June of 1997 the Danish parliament removed all government funding for Tvind schools in Denmark. This happened after the government accounting agency, Rigsrevisionen, pointed out that Tvind was funneling government education subsidies into the commonwealth's funds...
Apparently, the IFU fund has not found the connection between Lichtenberg's businesses and Tvind during the investigations that it carried out in preparation for the million-DKK loan it is about to give out to the Trayton corporation.
"We have made an evaluation of our partner [Lichtenberg] based on what has been presented to us" says Sven Riskær, administrative leader of IFU. "In the course of our investigations we have not come across any material that is either illegal or that could give cause for concern. But now we are going to investigate the company once again."
It comes as a surprise to Danish ambassador Christopher Bo Bramsen that Lichtenberg allegedly has such a close association with the unpopular Danish school commonwealth.
"I acted completely in good faith so this won't cause any problems for me. I do what I am supposed to out here. When a Danish company would like me to help them out, I do. If I didn't I would get in trouble" says the ambassador.
Note: This article has been edited by the Ross Institute of New Jersey. Editing is denoted by brackets or three dots to denote a excised portion.