Spanish retail giant, Amancio Ortega Gaona was the world’s richest man for a few hours last Friday.Ortega’s net worth hit $80 billion as stock in his holding company Industria de Diseño Textil reached an all-time high of 33.99 Euros per share. Gates quickly reclaimed the top ranking after Ortega’s shares slipped slightly to 33.80 Euros as of 10:52 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Even so, the Spanish press hailed his temporary ascension to the peak as a not-so-minor miracle – as well they might, given Spain’s current economic woes.
The two billionaires will likely swap the title of world’s richest man in the coming days, as shares of Inditex , Microsoft MSFT 9.47% and their other holdings continue to bounce up and down.
In the past 12 months, shares in Ortega’s fashion company, Inditex, rose 40 per cent in price. Ortega owns 59.3 per cent of the business, which is valued at €110 billion, and is not only bigger than H&M and Gap, but worth more than Santander and Telefonica – Spain’s two largest other commercial empires. So why do we know so little about the man behind it? Ortega is not anonymous by chance. Some of the fashion brands he owns – Zara most notably, but also Massimo Dutti and Pull&Bear – may be famous, but Ortega assiduously avoids the limelight, declining all interview requests and eschewing the flashy resorts and extravagant hobbies that stud the billionaire’s Milky Way (his chief hobby is rearing chickens). Consider the below the CV Ortega would (perhaps) write, were he publicity minded.
How did the son of a railroad worker in Fascist Spain hit the big time?
Ortega began his professional life at 14 as a delivery boy with a shirt-maker in Coruna, a blustery city in Northern Spain. Within a few years he had set up a workshop making nightgowns, lingerie and babywear. In 1963, with the equivalent of €30 (so legend has it) he founded a company called Confecciones GOA – his initials, backwards.
It’s a family affair
Ortega integrated GOA into holding group Inditex, which he set up with his first wife, Rosalia Mera, and which floated on the stock market in 2001. His second wife Flora Perez, 61, sits on the board of Inditex. Their daughter Marta, 31, who has undergone training at the firm, including working in a store, is widely expected to take over, although the firm has yet to confirm her as a successor. Meanwhile 79 year old Ortega somehow finds time, between tending to his beloved chickens, to remain very much involved with all his brands.
Presumably Zara was named after a daughter?
Actually it was named after Zorba the Greek, Ortega and his wife Rosalia’s favourite film – sort of. Hearing of the proposed name, the owner of a nearby bar, also called Zorba, complained. Conciliatory yet budget conscious, Ortega searched for an alternative name that would use (almost) the letters he’d already had made. Zara, with its budget versions of catwalk hits, opened in Coruna in 1975. All things considered, it has not been a disaster. Ortega began to expand into the rest of Spain, invading Portugal in 1988, the USA the following year and France in 1990. The UK, which already had a ferociously competitive high street, took a bit longer. The first Zara opened in London in 1998. It too was a smash. These days no town can consider itself a serious retail magnate without a Zara. When Sydney finally got a branch in 2011, crowd barriers had to be maintained for weeks. As one Sydney-sider remarked sardonically, “Thank God, we won’t be a third-world fashion country any more.”
What about those other Inditex brands?
Massimo Dutti, initially selling menswear, was acquired in 1991. Their womenswear – stylish, classic, around 30 per cent more expensive than Zara, arrived in 1992. In 1998, came Bershka, aimed at teenagers. In 2000 it gave birth to Oysho, a lingerie chain, then Zara Home, Uterqüe and Pull&Bear. Zara’s perfumes are so popular, there are waiting lists for new launches, which often have familiar base notes. Zara Woman Gold (£14) is reported to smell remarkably similar to Paco Rabanne’s Lady Million (£48.50). In total, Inditex has 6,700 shops in 88 countries. But the star is undoubtably…
What’s so special about Zara?
Speed, obviously. Its state-of-the-art manufacturing chain means it can midwife a product from drawing board to shop floor in three weeks. While some of its manufacturing is in China and Morocco, most is in Spain and “proximity” countries, making it easier to control quality and, when necessary, increase production overnight.
What really lifts it above the competition is its faultless eye. Any chain can – and does – churn out catwalk “tributes” by the lorry-load, but Zara does it better than anyone else – thanks to its cut and tailoring, both honed in a country that is particular about such things and which, until relatively recently, still had a strong home dressmaking culture.