Spain's richest man runs world's biggest fashion retailer

18th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

From his workship in the rugged northwestern region of Galicia, Amancio Ortega has conquered the world.

But he is something of an enigma.

A billionaire thanks to his Inditex retail empire, including its flagship Zara brand, on Tuesday he will pass the torch on to his number two, but as always with complete discretion.

The son of a railwayman, Ortega, 75, is the richest person in Spain and seventh in the world according to Forbes magazine, with a fortune estimated at $31 billion (22 billion euros).

His humble origins meant he left school at 13, to work as a salesman in a shirt store in the city of La Coruna. Just four years later, he set up his own business, initially handling wholesales.

He opened his first Zara boutique in 1975, in La Coruna. More followed, and he expanded into Portugal in 1988, the United States in 1989, France in 1990.

But Spanish media have been hard put to dig up any stories about him.

Married twice and the father of three children, he never gives interviews. For years, nobody even knew what he looked like. Ortega agreed to pose for an official photo only once when the company was officially listed on the stock market in 2001.

"In the street, I only want to be recognised by my family, my friends and people I work with," he told Covadonga O'Shea, the only journalist who has been able to get close to him, and who wrote his biography.

For almost 40 years, Zara has become the emblem of his low-cost fashion empire.

Inditex (short for Industria de diseno textil) is the largest fashion retailer in the world. Aside from Zara, its brands include youth label Bershka and the upmarket Massimo Dutti.

The group, which rode out the economic crisis, saw its profits leap 30 percent in 2010, to 1.7 billion euros.

It now has more 5,000 stores in 78 countries, the most recent in India and Australia, and employs some 100,000 people.

Its success has been put down to a rapid turnover -- 40 percent of stock is replaced every week. The 2010 collection had more than 30,000 designs, each in small quantities to create more demand.

Transport costs are kept low as more than 50 percent of the goods are produced in Europe and neighbouring Morocco.

"The business model is so innovative that it has been studied at Harvard and some (competitors) have copied it," said Covadonga O'Shea.

But Inditex also has its critics.

"In the beginning, there were some things that resembled others, for example Chanel designs," said O'Shea. But "today (Inditex) has 600 designers."

Spanish employees this month also staged protests over working conditions, complaining that 80 percent of them work part-time on law salaries.

Ortega will not be at Tuesday's shareholders meeting where his departure as chairman will be retiring.

The billionaire, who regularly eats at the staff canteen, will be not be retiring however. He will remain the main shareholder in Inditex, holding 59.3 percent.

His successor, Pablo Isla, currently the managing director, has a very different background. A 47-year-old lawyer, he was formerly co-chairman of tobacco giant Altadis and joined Inditex in 2005.

© 2011 AFP

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