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

Iris Apfel: an inspiration to young fashionistas
People

Iris Apfel: an inspiration to young fashionistas

Iris Apfel made her name as a high-society interior designer before a show at the New York Met turned her into a fashion influencer. At 100 years old,…
19 Sep 2021
Klarna’s Sebastian Siemiatkowski: fintech innovator gunning for the banks
People

Klarna’s Sebastian Siemiatkowski: fintech innovator gunning for the banks

Sebastian Siemiatkowski’s Klarna app allows customers to buy now, pay later, without racking up interest charges. He’s excited about the future. Regul…
12 Sep 2021
Pedro Castillo: leftist outsider who rode to power in Peru
People

Pedro Castillo: leftist outsider who rode to power in Peru

Pedro Castillo amassed support among the left-behind as a trade-union leader before riding to power in this year’s presidential race. What has the cou…
7 Sep 2021
Gabe Plotkin and the online mob’s unfinished business
People

Gabe Plotkin and the online mob’s unfinished business

A social-media pile-on nearly wiped out hedge funder Gabe Plotkin back in January. The fight is not over yet.
31 Aug 2021

Most Popular

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021
Two shipping funds to buy for steady income
Investment trusts

Two shipping funds to buy for steady income

Returns from owning ships are volatile, but these two investment trusts are trying to make the sector less risky.
7 Sep 2021
Should investors be worried about stagflation?
US Economy

Should investors be worried about stagflation?

The latest US employment data has raised the ugly spectre of “stagflation” – weak growth and high inflation. John Stepek looks at what’s going on and …
6 Sep 2021