He’s been named the third richest person in the world, a self-made mogul behind the Zara fashion house who has amassed a staggering fortune estimated at $US57 billion ($55 billion).
But search for a photograph of Amancio Ortega online or any information about his private life, and the pickings are surprisingly few and far between.
Affordable imitations of catwalk designs can move from drawing-board to stores within two weeks.
“Reclusive”, “secretive” and “reserved” are words usually used to describe the stocky 76-year-old from Spain, who leapfrogged US investor Warren Buffett to become the third-richest person in the world on Forbes’ 2013 annual ranking of billionaires. Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim leads the list ($US73 billion), followed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates ($US67 billion).
Despite the best efforts of Spain’s intrusive celebrity press, Ortega has jealously guarded his privacy, so much so that his company, Inditex, has only released one photograph of him, when the company listed in 2001.
Ortega routinely turns down interviews. He is occasionally seen at equestrian competitions with his family, wearing blue blazers, open-necked white shirts and casual trousers.
He maintains his privacy partly thanks to living in the rainy city of A Coruna in northwest Spain, about 590 kilometres from the capital Madrid.
There are scant biographical details in the few books about him.
Biographers who say they have had access to him tell a rags-to-riches story: Ortega left school when he was 12 to work as a shirt-maker’s delivery boy, to help support his poor family.
He learnt fast and began making gowns and lingerie in his living room along with his first wife, Rosalia Mera.
He realised customers wanted affordable versions of catwalk trends and opened his first Zara shop in A Coruna in 1975.
In a country with sky-high unemployment and businesses going to the wall, Ortega is a rare self-made mogul amid a corporate culture dominated by family dynasties.
Experts credit Zara with transforming the business through “fast fashion”. Affordable imitations of catwalk designs can move from drawing-board to stores within two weeks, and poor sellers are pulled off the shop floor even quicker.
The “fast fashion” tycoon’s estimated net worth of $US57 billion is built on a formula of endless renewal, with dresses and blouses displayed in thousands of Zara stores worldwide for only a few days before they are taken off the rails and replaced with an even newer line of must-have garments.
Customers know they have to buy the clothes quickly if they want them because they will not be available for long. The now-global strategy also encourages shoppers to return frequently to see new ranges and trends.
The aggressively managed Inditex has more than 6000 stores in some 90 countries and includes such brands as Ortega’s flagship Zara, Zara Home, Massimo Dutti and others. It is the world’s biggest fashion retailer ahead of Gap and Hennes & Mauritz, making 840 million garments a year.
Inditex says it does not advertise, and with celebrities such as Kate Middleton – wife to Britain’s Prince William – wearing Zara clothes, it may not have to.
Ortega’s empire is a cash-rich business with a market capitalisation of 65 billion euros ($84 billion) that is thriving amid the deep economic gloom that is engulfing its home country. The shares rose 67 per cent last year, bucking a slump in consumer spending in Spain.
Ortega took home 666 million euros in gross dividends thanks to his 59 per cent stake in Inditex, which is worth 38 billion euros at current prices.
He has also largely defied the gloom in Spain’s property sector through clever purchases and management of real estate. His Zara stores are often positioned in premium locations near other more luxurious brands as part of his marketing strategy.
Ortega handed over chairmanship of the company to Pablo Isla in 2011 but is thought to retain an active role in the business.
Security is tight at its headquarters. Visitors are picked up from A Coruna in chauffeur-driven cars and taken to the company’s campus – a 20-minute drive away at Arteixo, in the middle of the countryside. The complex sprawls across an area equivalent to 11 soccer pitches.
Reuters was attentively shown around by members of the company’s communications team, but it is the firm’s policy to talk more about the company than its founder.
Ortega does, however, talk to the workers when he visits the A Coruna headquarters.
There are bright, modern, open-plan floors where designers sit close to teams who talk directly to representatives in the firm’s stores, feeding back customers’ reactions to the clothes.
The slickest part of the operation is found at the logistics depot, where computer-controlled overhead conveyor belts drop clothes stitched by suppliers into boxes to be sent out to shops around the globe.
The highlight of the visit, though, is to “Fashion Street”, a mall within the complex that includes a Zara store and another from the furnishings brand Zara Home.
Here every window dressing and table layout is meticulously trialled and photographed, so that stores can replicate the most eye-catching displays from Madrid to Tokyo, from London to Sao Paulo, an example of the tight control exercised by the company.
“The till works but you can’t buy anything here,” explained an Inditex spokesman in the Zara Home store, showing Reuters around its tables of artfully arranged scented candles, folded napkins, towels and racks of bed linen.
Beyond retail, Ortega has investments in two main funds: Pontegadea Inversiones, in which he is the majority owner with 97.2 per cent and his daughter Marta has 2.8 per cent; and Pontegadea Inmobiliaria.