Amancio Ortega Gaona is the third-richest man on earth. In this provincial corner of Galicia, on Spain’s windswept northwestern coastline, the 76-year-old founder of the Inditex Group has spent years secluded from public view, all while living in the middle of La Coruña, a city of 246,000 people. Among the millions of shoppers who patronize Inditex’s flagship brand, Zara, and have made Ortega unfathomably rich, few have even heard his name. Ortega has made sure of that, shunning social appearances and refusing all interview requests (including for this article). Until 1999 no photograph of Ortega had ever been published.
And yet, a world away from the glitz of Paris, Milan, and New York, Ortega has built a fashion empire that reaches into more than 80 countries. Beginning 40 years ago, Ortega ripped up the business model that had been refined over decades by Europe’s fashion houses and replaced it with one of the most brutally fast turnaround schedules the industry had ever attempted. Decades later Zara is the world’s biggest fashion retailer.
Ortega built his empire on two basic rules: Give customers what they want, and get it to them faster than anyone else. The twin organizing principles have made the company (and Ortega) into an unlikely iconoclast, more of an optimal supply chain than a traditional retailer. They are also the secret to Inditex’s astonishing success. “Very few companies can challenge Inditex at this time. The company is in a race with themselves rather than anything else,” says Christodoulos Chaviaras, a retail analyst at Barclays Capital in London. Tadashi Yanai, founder ofclothing retailer Uniqlo, has made it his stated goal in life to beat Zara. And last August shares of the fashion company Esprit rose 28% on the day it announced its new CEO, Inditex’s former distribution and operations manager.