For someone reputed to be fiercely private, Amancio Ortega is a surprisingly familiar face in his home town, and at the headquarters of Inditex, the giant Spanish retail empire he controls.
In fact, in the 40 years since Ortega founded Inditex, the company behind retail chain Zara, much about his life has remained remarkably unchanged despite the extraordinary wealth he has accumulated along the way.
The 79-year-old has just become the world’s richest man on the planet, surpassing Warren Buffet for the first time, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.
Yet, the tycoon reportedly visits the same coffee shop every day in La Coruña, the Galician city on the North Atlantic’s windy coast, where he has spent most of his life, and is often spotted ambling across its Plaza Maria Pita.
Although he stepped back as Inditex’s chairman in 2012, Ortega still travels to its headquarters 10 miles away in Arteixo nearly every day.
The boss eats lunch with his employees in the company cafeteria, and instead of disappearing into an office, is usually found sharing a table on the factory floor, with some of the designers, fabric experts and buyers.
Spain’s Princess Letizia and Crown Prince Felipe with Amancio Ortega during a visit to an Inditex factory in Coruna, northern Spain, in 2008. Photo: Reuters
Perhaps more oddly for man whose giant fortune has been built on clothing, Ortega displays little interest in fashion and no loyalty to his brands. He dresses modestly in the same outfit – a blue blazer, white shirt, and grey trousers — none of which is a Zara product.
Ironically, Ortega seems to be one of the few people who doesn’t wear Inditex’s clothes.
The Spanish company, which as well as Zara also owns the brands Bershka, Pull & Bear, and Massimo Dutti, has quietly become the world’s largest fashion retailer with 6,500 shops in 88 countries and annual sales of more than €18.1 billion.
The key to such success is a unique business model that has been dubbed “fast fashion” and is governed by two key principles: giving customers what they want as quickly as possible.
Ortega’s accomplishment is all the more astonishing given the hardship he experienced growing up during the Spanish civil war. Born in the tiny village of Busdongo de Arbas in northern Spain, in 1936, his family eked out a meagre existence.
The paltry income that came from Ortega’s father’s job as a railway worker and his mother’s work as a housemaid sometimes left them unable to afford even the most basic of items.
At the age of 13, Ortega started working in a clothing shop in La Coruña and by his early twenties he was making women’s bathrobes with his siblings and partner Rosalia Mera, whom he would later marry.
Zara is known for its “fast fashion” approach to business, and launches around 12,000 new designs every year
Their first shop opened in 1975. From the outset, speed was at the heart of the company’s philosophy, which has helped to turn it into the retail juggernaut that it is today.
Zara stores change their stock twice a week and orders arrive within 48 hours. What goes in and what gets binned is down to the store managers, who are trained to monitor carefully what’s selling, but also what customers are looking for or even wearing.
Thanks to a super-slick logistics operation, more than half its clothes being made in Europe, new ideas can go from design to shopfloor in just three weeks, less than half the average time it takes most big retail chains.
In the past few years, like-for-like sales have grown by 17pc and the company has opened 11m sq ft of new shop space.
Yet, as he approaches 80, Ortega shows no sign of reining back expansion. Inditex plans expand the shop space by eight to 10pc every year for the next three to five years.
His 60 per cent stake has remained virtually unchanged since the company floated in 2001 and is now worth $71.5bn.
And how does a simple village boy with such a huge fortune spend his spare time? Raising chickens on his country estate.