19. Amancio Ortega

Founder of Zara fashion stores

"If I’ve made so much money, it’s because my objective has never been to make money."

Co-founder, former chairman and CEO, Inditex
Born: March 28, 1936, Busdongo de Arbás, Spain
Education: Left high school at 14

Amancio Ortega is a famously publicity-shy and unostentatious workaholic. He is rarely photographed or interviewed, eats in his company's canteen and reportedly went 25 years without taking a vacation. He dresses for work in the uniform of a prosperous southern European local businessman: gray slacks and an open-neck shirt.

His company, Inditex, is hardly known outside its industry, even though it is the biggest fashion group on earth. It has annual sales in excess of $19 billion—and margins to die for in the cutthroat retail apparel world. The 6,200 sleek stores of its flagship Zara chain are familiar sights in malls and upscale shopping streets on six continents.

With headquarters in La Coruña, an industrial town in a remote corner of northwestern Spain, Ortega has shredded the top-down seasonal model of the couture houses in Milan, Paris and London by making stylish clothes that customers want and can afford, and getting them into stores in the shortest possible time.

Inditex constantly feeds its stores with new looks—often synthesized from the most recent runway shows—regardless of the calendar. Ortega's fortune (an estimated $64 billion, according to Forbes 2014 Rich List, making him the world's third-richest man) is based on making Inditex the supply chain that delivered the industry's fastest turnaround and lowest inventory levels.

This global fast-fashion operation started from all but nothing. Ortega was born in a hamlet in the northwestern province of León, Spain. Employment opportunities took his father, a railway worker, and mother, a maid, to La Coruña, in the neighboring Galicia region, when he was 14. Reportedly shamed by a shopkeeper who refused his mother credit, Ortega quit school to take work with a local tailor.

In his mid-20s, he, his siblings and his first wife, Rosalía Mera, struck out on their own, making bathrobes. They later expanded into lingerie, all made by hundreds of local women Ortega had organized into sewing cooperatives. (Even now, Inditex keeps most of its fashion garment production close to home; that gives it a time advantage over rivals that outsource to countries halfway around the world.)

Ortega opened his first Zara store in 1975. He expanded the chain throughout Galicia, then nationally and internationally. He set up a parent company, Industria de Diseño Textil (Inditex), to manage his growing suite of brands. Inditex is a vertical conglomerate comprising some 100 companies involved in textile design, production and distribution.

To guarantee the quality of his fabrics, Ortega integrated backward—up the supply chain. His designs are cut from materials finished and treated at his mills. They are sewed into garments by his long-standing network of local workshops and then distributed to his stores. Ortega's obsession with design and quality control carries through to the retail locations, whose displays are tested in Inditex's store-design lab at headquarters.

Seamless logistics are the lynchpin of the operation. Production capacity at garment factories is prebooked, and supplies of fabric and other materials lined up so that designs can move from sketch pad to store in just 10 days—all under Ortega's watchful eye.

Ortega was a fashion industry pioneer in using information technology. He got his first computer in 1976 to track sales—inventory control being critical to a company that, from the outset, ruled that any store had to be able to be restocked with 48 hours. To this day, Inditex stores report to Ortega daily, so that he knows what's selling and what's languishing, what consumers are trying on but not buying. New lines arrive in the stores twice a week, as Ortega tweaks collections based on his daily analysis of customer feedback.

Inditex went public in 2001, leaving Ortega with 59 percent of the company. His two children with Mera have another 6 percent. The daughter he had with second wife Flora Pérez Marcote, Marta, is the only one of his three children to work in the business and is seen as his possible long-term successor.

Though Ortega handed over the chairman position to CEO Pablo Isla in 2011, on most days he still makes the 30-minute journey from his unshowy apartment complex to sit among the designers at Inditex's steel-and-glass office in the Arteixo neighborhood of La Coruña.

Amancio Ortega: Lifelong highlights

  • Dissuaded from first choice name for his stores, Zorba (after the film), by the owner of a local bar of the same name
  • Added other brands to Inditex, including Massimo Dutti, Pull and Bear, Bershka, Stradivarius and Oysho
  • Dispensed with an office at headquarters, preferring to sit at a table among Zara's young designers and buyers
  • Owns an equestrian center in Finisterre, Galicia, where he indulges a passion for riding; daughter Marta married Sergio Álvarez Moya, an international show jumper
  • Invested in gas, banking and tourism; owns Spain's tallest skyscraper, the Torre Picasso, in Madrid, and Epic Residences & Hotel, a luxury development in Miami designed by Luis Revuelta
  • Started Fundación Paideia to promote entrepreneurship in Galicia

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