How the founder of Zara became the richest man in the world

For two days, Amancio Ortega was the richest man in the world. Here’s how he made it there.

Meryl D'Souza December 20, 2016

Amancio Ortega is the second richest man in the world. It’s not something most people think about while browsing through the rails and trying on apparel made by his company, Zara. That is mostly because the fashion chain’s Spanish founder prefers keeping a low profile, avoiding interviews and media appearances whenever possible. 

Earlier this year, the mysterious founder overtook Bill Gates to become the richest man in the world, after shares of his retail giant Inditex — which owns Zara, Massimo Dutti, and Pull&Bear — rose 2.5%.  According to Forbes, the rise catapulted Ortega’s fortune to $79.5 billion — higher than Bill Gates’ net worth of $78.5 billion.

This wasn’t the first time Ortega knocked Gates off the summit. In October last year, he was the wealthiest man in the world for a few hours. This year, he was able to hold on to that spot for a little longer – two days – before Bill Gates reclaimed his throne — one he has held on to for 17 of the last 22 years.

Such is life at the top of the billionaire's list. These guys make and lose million, even billions in a matter of minutes. For 80-year-old Amancio Ortega, the path to this life started when he was just 14.

Born in 1936, Ortega, a rail worker’s son was forced to drop out of school at the age of 14 when his family left León for La Coruña. There, the youngest of four children found himself a job as a shop hand for a local shirt maker called Gala, which still sits on the same corner in downtown A Coruña.

Vowing never to let his family struggle again, soaked in as much knowledge as he could from the trade and went on to set up a textile company with his future wife Rosalia Mera, before setting up the Zara brand. Today, his retail company has over 6,600 outposts around the world.

What set Ortega apart from the other fashion brands in Spain at the time was that he noticed the how long shops were taking to bring products to the people. By the time a product made it to shelves, people were coveting something new. Ortega aimed to reduce that turnaround time.

It’s a business model he has followed unto this day. Ortega, who is still very much a part of his company’s day-to-day management, selects designs based on feedback from shop assistants. “If he speaks to a shop assistant and he likes what they had to say, he will pay more attention to that than to any of his managers,” a former Inditex director told Reuters. 

Despite his success though, Ortega has lived a relatively humble life. The man seldom ventures far from A Coruña and – like all powerful people in the world – wears the same thing to work every day: a blue blazer, white shirt, and grey pants — none of which are Zara products.

In fact, Ortega is a creature of habit. He visits the same coffee shops every day and eats lunch with his employees in the company cafeteria. Among his staff, the man is known for rarely jetting off on vacations.

Don’t let his lifestyle fool you though. He isn’t as thrifty as the founder of IKEA. Besides owning a private equestrian centre, Ortega bought the tallest building in Spain, owns The Epic Residences and Hotel in Miami, owns a private jet designed by Bombardier and a 40-metre long yacht.

That might be a little excess for some of us, but what’s the point of being a Europe’s richest man if you don’t drop a couple of millions every now and then?