Amancio Ortega: the humble introvert who made a billion

Amancio Ortega shook up the retail industry with his “fast-fashion” revolution. Now he’s the richest man in Spain and has a property empire bigger than the Duke of Westminster’s. 

950_MW_P33_Profile

RG4AAP

Move over Hugh Grosvenor, there's a new European property king. According to Bloomberg data, the founder of Zara, Amancio Ortega, has quietly overtaken the real-estate heirs of London to hold the continent's biggest portfolio with assets worth $13bn, compared with $12bn for the young Duke of Westminster and $7bn for Charles Cadogan. Not bad for a man who grew up so poor that there were periods in his childhood when he ate "only potatoes".

At 83, Ortega is Spain's richest man, with a fortune put at $63.6bn most of it derived from his majority stake in Zara's parent Inditex, the world's largest fast-fashion operator. For some years Ortega's wealth managers have been scrambling to diversify his wealth, says The Economist. Property was the natural choice for a mogul who likes an investment "he can touch". And of late the chief target of Ortega's investment firm, Pontegadea, has been the US, where he has spent $3bn over the past six years typically on landmark properties in key cities. Like many multibillionaires, he mostly pays in cash.

How he turned fashion on its head

Zorba the Greek

Right from the start, Ortega turned the fashion industry's established modus operandi on its head. Rather than deciding what people should wear, then trying to persuade them to buy it, he asked shoppers what they wanted and designed the products accordingly. Before a global push in the 1980s, Ortega built a pioneering system linking Zara's talented young designers with its factories, warehouses and stores. It was the start of a fast-fashion revolution that left rivals trailing. These days, garments "fly from the design room to the shelves of stores in New York and Tokyo within four weeks".

In 2008 Inditex whose other brands include Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka overtook Gap to become the world's largest clothes retailer by sales; in 2011, it usurped Banco Santander as the biggest company in Spain. Success has posed problems for Ortega, "whose leadership style appears to favour extreme introversion", says The Economist. He is so self-effacing that investors visiting in advance of the firm's 2001 float "awkwardly" confused him with other staff. He has always preferred to direct his firm while standing with colleagues in the design room "he has never had his own office, deskor computer".

No model stays brilliant forever in business, and the challenge facing Inditex is how long it can keep growing, and at what pace, says the Financial Times. Ortega, who retired in 2011, is out of the daily fray, but still occasionally drops by the staff canteen. Described by one financier as "a man of the people", it must have come as a shock when Spain's Podemos party recently insinuated during a lament about inequality that he was "a terrorist". If so, he's been a remarkably productive one for Spain.

Recommended

Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel: the maths nerd who struck vaccine gold
People

Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel: the maths nerd who struck vaccine gold

A decade ago, Stéphane Bancel took a gamble and joined a fledgling start-up working on an unproven new technology. The gamble paid off with the rise o…
17 Apr 2021
Will Shu: Deliveroo CEO and its first delivery rider
People

Will Shu: Deliveroo CEO and its first delivery rider

City analyst Will Shu was sick of working long hours at Canary Wharf and having to make do with what was left on the shelf in Tesco for dinner. So he …
10 Apr 2021
John and Patrick Collison: the nerds who conquered Silicon Valley
People

John and Patrick Collison: the nerds who conquered Silicon Valley

John and Patrick Collison, a genial pair of young Irish brothers from a humble background, had a simple idea – to launch the next PayPal. Just ten yea…
3 Apr 2021
AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot: in the crossfire of the vaccine wars
People

AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot: in the crossfire of the vaccine wars

AstraZeneca’s boss Pascal Soriot was winning plaudits for his stewardship when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Since then, he’s been having a hard time …
27 Mar 2021

Most Popular

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it
Bitcoin

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it

The cryptocurrency’s price has soared far beyond its fundamentals, says Matthew Partridge. Here, he looks at how to short bitcoin.
12 Apr 2021
What does the Coinbase listing mean for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?
Bitcoin

What does the Coinbase listing mean for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?

As the bitcoin price hit new highs, the world's biggest cryptocurrency exchange, Coinbase, listed on the stockmarket. John Stepek looks at what that m…
15 Apr 2021
Lab-grown meat: the new agricultural revolution
Soft commodities

Lab-grown meat: the new agricultural revolution

Vegan alternatives are taking off, but the future of food technology lies in lab-grown meat – cultivating steaks and burgers from animal cells, says A…
16 Apr 2021