This year, STIGA is celebrating 75 years as a table tennis brand. Since 1944, we have provided both professionals and enthusiasts, in Sweden and internationally, with table tennis products of the highest quality. And always with a big passion for the sport. But let’s go back to the beginning.
STIGA Table Tennis was founded in 1944 by Stig Hjelmquist in Tranås. Stig was a skilled businessman who understood the importance of engaging professional players into the company. Back in the 50s, he hired Sweden’s leading table tennis player, multiple Swedish champion Tage Flisberg. Although Flisberg was employed in the order department, his first task was to design a new table tennis bat – a bat made by a world class player for world class players. It was the first time that a table tennis bat would have the unique playing characteristics of a player.
However, Stig didn’t settle for just one professional player. In 1963, he employed Kjell ”The Hammer” Johansson, who became the first in a row of future Swedish legends to act as a promotional figure for the company; Johansson became the world champion in singles, doubles and team events. Eventually, the two-time European singles champion Hans Alsér and Stellan Bengtsson were also hired, Bengtsson being the first Swede to win the World Singles Championships in 1971.
In the 50s, Stig began to develop bats according to the playing styles and grips of professional players. The big Swedish stars at the time, Bengtsson, Johansson and Alsér, each had their own unique grip: straight, conical and concave. A sticker of the player together with his name also became a trademark of bats made by STIGA. These blades and their specific characteristics still lie at the heart of the company’s identity.
As STIGA and table tennis were advancing in the 50s, a young country boy and baker’s son, Bengt Andersson from Borsökna, just outside Eskilstuna, sat and pondered the future. Perhaps ”sat” isn’t the right word since Bengt was hardly a boy who could keep still. He constantly pondered over the concept of business – and how to do it in the best possible way. Always busy with something, at the age of 18, he and his brother ran a pastry shop with 40 employees.
Bengt knew very early on that business was for him. And then there was table tennis. He often played with the brothers Kjell and Christer Johansson down at Fuxen in the early 50s. The three of them would make grand plans over the table. Kjell wanted to be world champion, Christer a coach, and Bengt dreamed of running the world’s largest manufacturer of table tennis products. But few, probably not even they themselves, knew how close to their dreams they would come in reality.
In the 50s and 60s, almost every school, recreation centre and association in Sweden had a table tennis table. Every recreation space and garage large enough to hold a table became the natural meeting point. Table tennis was being played everywhere. One of the main reasons why the sport had become so popular was due to a big event: The World Table Tennis Championships in Stockholm in 1957. This and four other table tennis championships were being played on tables that are still considered to be the best in the world: the STIGA Expert VM.
In the mid-60s, STIGA products began to gain a strong foothold both in Sweden and internationally. At the same time, Bengt, the entrepreneur, decided to start a company called Banda in Eskilstuna, as there was certainly room for more operators on the international table tennis scene. After training one day, Kjell came home claiming to have discovered the world’s best table tennis ball, and so Bengt decided to start importing the balls from the Nittaku brand in Japan.
The determined entrepreneur got on the phone to sports stores to inquire about the special Japanese ball. When they said they’d never heard of it, he told them to get in touch with Kjell who’d said it was the best and only ball he used. It wasn’t long before the stores starting calling Bengt wanting to buy the balls. After all, who doesn’t want to play with the same ball as a pro?
At the end of the 1960s, having previously only produced complete bats, STIGA started to manufacture and sell separate blades. The first blade was called the Allround Classic and was developed in cooperation with the Swedish champions who determined the different grips: Alsér’s comfortable and slightly wider, concave grip, the Hammer’s conical grip, and Stellan Bengtsson’s simple, straight grip. Other blades were produced and became best sellers, but the original Allround Classic is still manufactured today and remains one of the world’s most famous table tennis blades. The interest in STIGA blades spread across Europe during the 70s as people travelled around and marketed the Swedish handmade brand. The blades were sold directly to players, who attached the rubber themselves.
Bengt continued to work with Banda, who had a hard time standing up to the competition created by STIGA, but in the early 1970s, he discovered a brilliant talent in Sundsvall, a sevenyear- old by the name of Jan-Ove Waldner. Bengt and J-O got on so well that Bengt contacted his parents, asking if he could sponsor their son. J-O’s parents said yes. After every match, J-O would join Bengt in the spectators’ gallery. On one occasion, he took out a pair of socks from his bag. ”Do you know when I’ll be wearing these?” he asked Bengt. ”When I compete at the finals of the World Championships.” And he was right! In 1987 in New Delhi, during the World Championship finals against reigning world champion Jiang Jialiang, J-O was wearing those socks.
Bengt and STIGA’s paths finally crossed in 1984 when Bengt acquired the table tennis division of his biggest competitor. He then continued to run the company under the name of Sweden Table Tennis AB. And so STIGA moved to Eskilstuna. It also marks the starting point for a prosperous era for Swedish table tennis. In 1989, the new and young national team beat China for the first time since winning Gold in the World Championships in Sarajevo in 1973. Clad in STIGA clothing, the Swedish team then went on to win the World Championships three years in a row.
Bengt’s son, Mats, who had grown up with the company, began 25 playing table tennis at the age of eight. Two years later, in 1978, after winning a table tennis championship in Oxelösund, he was rated among the best players of his age in Sweden
Mats was then selected to represent Sweden at the European Youth Championships, where he won Silver in the doubles with Thomas von Scheele, Bronze in the singles, and Gold together with the Swedish team. Two years later, that very same team was once again on top of the podium in the Junior Championships. However, in 1987, Mats decided to end his international table tennis career in order to focus on elite level participation, first at the Stockholm-based Spårvägen BTK and later at the Eskilstuna-based BTK Linden.
But then, at the tender age of 21, Mats placed his bat on the shelf and started studying economics at Linköping University. After graduating, he moved back to Eskilstuna and began working for STIGA’s export department. During the years that followed, he divided his time between export sales and head of product development, always in close cooperation with his father Bengt.
At the beginning of the 1990s, an event took place that would be very important for STIGA. Bengt and Mats succeeded in signing an agreement with Liu Guoliang, a legend in the world of table tennis and the first Chinese player to achieve a grand slam of three majors (Olympic Gold, World Cup, World Championships). ”He couldn’t speak English and I definitely couldn’t speak Chinese, so, to this day, I don’t know how we managed to seal the deal,” says Bengt.
The agreement with Liu Guoliang was the beginning of a long and close cooperation between China and STIGA, and the reason why the company is still the official blade supplier to the Chinese national table tennis team.
After almost 40 years in table tennis and blade production, Bengt chose to step down as CEO in 1999, handing over the reins to his 31-year-old son Mats. Mats’ philosophy was that STIGA should be as visible as possible, and, like his father, he wanted the brand to be the world’s largest manufacturer of table tennis products. And like his father, he was very passionate about the Swedish-made blades and always placed great importance on the products having unique playing properties and meeting STIGA’s high quality standards.
In the spring of 2000, the Swedish team had a sensational victory at the World Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: the first Gold medal for Sweden since the Championships on home turf in Gothenburg in 1993. If that wasn’t enough, four months later, two Swedes reached the semifinals at the Sydney Olympics. Swedish table tennis hysteria was in full swing again. Suddenly, everyone wanted to play table tennis. People went so crazy that all the Swedish sports chains as well as the STIGA warehouse ran out of bats and balls.
The increased interest in table tennis initiated the signing of a 10-year cooperation agreement in 2003 between STIGA and the Swedish Table Tennis Association, and in 2013, the agreement was extended by another seven years.
Bengt and Mats’ joint eye for business, passion for the sport and the ability to speak the players’ language - albeit not literally in all aspects of the game - have been crucial to the success and continued development of Banda and STIGA.
And the table tennis story doesn’t end there. It has only just begun. With a firm instinct for quality and innovation, and a great passion for the sport, we continue to provide professionals, enthusiasts and families with Swedish-made world class blades and table tennis products. Just as we’ve always done since 1944.
STIGA Table Tennis is celebrating its 75th anniversary by launching Clipper 75, a new blade in the classic Clipper series.