Iconic Tour

5 success tips from a multibillionaire who went from rags to riches

Aneri Pattani, special to CNBC.com
Amancio Ortega
Xurxo Lobato | Getty Images

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are household names, but one of the men battling them for the top spot on the global billionaires list may have escaped your attention.

A self-made retail magnate who launched the Spanish brand Zara, Amancio Ortega briefly overtook the Microsoft founder last week to become the richest man in the world. Shares of Ortega's retail conglomerate have fluctuated since, but in any event, the Spanish retail magnate's reserve is a more interesting way to approach him than whether he is No. 1, 2 or 3 among the world's richest.

Buffett is a public relations and media master; Gates puts out lists of his favorite books to read on business. The Spanish billionaire, on the other hand, has shied away from the media for years while amassing a personal net worth of more than $77 billion (as of Thursday). His empire is built on a foundation of 7,000 stores in nearly 100 countries across brands like Zara, Massimo Dutti and Pull&Bear, which amassed $20 billion in revenue in the last fiscal year for Inditex, the retail conglomerate Ortega founded.

Aspiring entrepreneurs can try to divine some of Ortega's operating principles and the secrets to his success from past profiles, an authorized biography written by a friend and the occasional interview he has given.

Here are five lessons from the press-shy $77 billion man to get you started.

Lesson 1: Speed is everything.

When Ortega founded Zara in 1975, he upended the retail world with an aggressive schedule meant to get new clothes on the rack faster than anyone else in the market. Dubbed "fast fashion," Ortega's strategy was to refresh the stock in Zara stores twice a week and receive orders within 48 hours, according to a CNBC report.

This speed has become a hallmark of Ortega's business and a sore point for his competitors. While a dress modeled during Fashion Week can take months to arrive in a department store, a similar design can be found in Zara just a few weeks later, Business Insider noted.

Lesson 2: Obsess over what your customers want.

"The customer has always driven the business model," Ortega wrote in Inditex's 2009 annual report. He has consistently stuck by that motto. In the 2010 annual report, the last before Ortega stepped down from his position as chairman, he wrote, "The customer must continue to be our main centre of attention, both in the creation of our fashion collections and in the design of our shops, of our logistical system and of any other activity."

Ortega's fashion acumen comes from observing what people are wearing and listening to what they want. He doesn't base his inventory on fashion shows, Fortune reported in 2013. The company tracks bloggers and listens to customers instead. This allows it to be malleable, always adjusting to the current season's trends.

In this regard, Ortega is in good billionaire company, sharing an obsession with Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who has said tech companies obsess over competitors when they should be focusing on customers. In the 2015 Amazon letter to shareholders, Bezos wrote: "Many companies describe themselves as customer-focused, but few walk the walk. Most big technology companies are competitor-focused. They see what others are doing, and then work to follow fast."

Lesson 3: Control the supply chain.

While other fashion firms have their clothes made in China due to the cheap labor costs, Inditex sources most of its products from Spain, Portugal and Morocco, The Economist reported in 2012. Ortega's designs are cut from materials finished and treated in his mills and then sewn by a network of local shops. This shortened supply chain allows the company to react quickly to new trends. That way, stores stock what customers are actually buying and are not left with unwanted inventory.

Lesson 4: Stay true to your roots.

Ortega's life is a true rags-to-riches tale. Born to a father who worked on a railway and a mother who was a housemaid, Ortega left school at the age of 14 to start making money. He was shamed by a shopkeeper who refused his mother credit to buy groceries for the family, his friend and biographer Covadonga O'Shea told an audience in 2012, when the English version of her book, "The Man From Zara," was released.

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Ortega has stayed true to his humble beginnings. He has never had an office, according to The Telegraph. He sits at a desk at Inditex's headquarters in his hometown of La Coruña, talking to the factory's designers, fabric experts and buyers.

"He loves working around all his employees," O'Shea said.

Even at 80 years old, Ortega goes to the office most days. He never tires of working and hearing new ideas.

Lesson 5: Never stop innovating.

The worst thing one can do is become self-satisfied, Ortega told a group of business professors in 2007. "Success is never guaranteed," he said to Cinco Dias, a Spanish business and finance newspaper that reported on the event.

"Complacency is the worst," he told the professors. "I never allow myself to be content with what I have done, and I have always tried to instill this in everyone around me."

When he does speak, Ortega can at times match the blunt management-speak that fits the billionaire mold more broadly.

"Grow or die," he said in Spanish. "If you want to innovate, don't focus on the results."

By Aneri Pattani, special to CNBC.com

[Editor's note: CNBC has translated some quotes from interviews and articles in Spanish.]