Inside Inditex SA (ITX)’s concrete-and- glass headquarters in the Spanish town of Arteixo, a lithe woman slips into a dress that a seamstress working amid buzzing sewing machines stitched together just minutes earlier. A half circle of designers -- looking like models themselves -- nod approval.
In weeks, this and hundreds of others creations inspired by pop culture or couture catwalks will fill the company’s more than 1,600 Zara stores in 85 countries on six continents. Since opening the first shop in his seaside home of La Coruna in 1975, billionaire founder Amancio Ortega has built the world’s largest clothing retailer -- and a fortune exceeding Warren Buffett’s, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its December cover package.
Ortega’s wealth is soaring even as his country battles an economic meltdown. Spain’s unemployment is hovering around 25 percent as the country suffers its second recession since 2009 and a debt crisis roils Europe. Standard & Poor’s cut Spain’s debt rating to one level above junk on Oct. 10. With the global economy growing the slowest in three years, Ortega’s cost- conscious lines are ringing up sales.
“That turbulence strangely favors a retailer like Zara,” says Nancy Koehn, a retail historian at Harvard Business School. “Among fashionistas, there’s a new badge of status in finding the cool at a lower price.” Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is sometimes photographed wearing Zara.
Inditex, short for Textile Design Industries in Spanish, boosted revenue to 7.2 billion euros ($9.3 billion) in the first half of 2012, 17 percent more than a year earlier. Revenue in Spain remained stable at about 1.6 billion euros during that time.
“They are fast reacting to fashion, they are very flexible with their product and they are growing nicely,” says Peter Braendle, who helps oversee $55 billion, including Inditex shares, at Swisscanto Asset Management AG in Zurich.
Ortega’s Buffett-beating billions haven’t changed him, people who work with the fashion mogul say.
After stepping down as Inditex chairman last year, he still travels a half-hour to headquarters most days from La Coruna, where residents speak the local Galician language. He usually settles at a table amid the designers, fabric experts and buyers for the Zara Woman line.
Wearing a simple shirt and slacks rarely of his own brands, which are cut for slimmer men, he confers on everything from placement of a zipper to the September debut of Zara’s Chinese website.
“He’s extremely close to the business operation, where he meets and sees and talks to everyone,” says Antonio Camunas, a former president of the Spain-U.S. Chamber of Commerce who connects clients with politicians, bankers and the media and has advised Ortega for almost two decades. Ortega declined to grant an interview for this story.
When Camunas, now 53, started working for Ortega in the early 1990s, the retail magnate had never been interviewed or photographed for publication. At the time, so much mystery surrounded the man behind the sleek Zara stores sprouting up across Spain that people speculated that Ortega must be a frontman for a Galician drug-smuggling ring, Camunas says, calling the idea nonsense.
“They couldn’t understand how he could do it,” says Camunas, chain-smoking at the Madrid offices of his consulting firm, Global Strategies SL. Covadonga O’Shea, who in 2008 published Ortega’s only authorized biography, later translated into English as “The Man From Zara,” wrote that Ortega met with former Catalan President Jordi Pujol to dispel the rumors.
Ortega turned the top-down fashion industry on its head by responding to customers’ demands, says O’Shea, who’s now president of the University of Navarra’s ISEM Fashion Business School in Madrid and one of just three journalists who have published conversations with him. They met 22 years ago, and she still considers him a friend.
“He saw that fashion has to be accessible, not just for a small elite,” says O’Shea, who describes Ortega as humble, eager for her opinion and trusting of young talent. “Fashion had to be democratized.”
Ortega doesn’t have qualms about borrowing from haute brands. In 2008, French footwear maker Christian Louboutin Sarl unsuccessfully sued Inditex, saying the company had infringed on its trademark red-soled high heels. A typical Zara shoe costs less than $100; Louboutin’s can exceed $1,000.
Inditex employs 300 designers in Arteixo and 100 in Barcelona, a base for smaller brands such as Massimo Dutti, which opened its first U.S. store in New York in October. They churn out 20,000 new items a year, taking cues from daily Inditex store reports on what’s selling, what’s hanging on racks and what customers are trying on and rejecting.
The designers draw up patterns, and in the Arteixo factories, robotic cutters using technology from Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) slice miles of fabric to their specifications.
Seamstresses in nearby cooperatives assemble the pieces and then send them back for ironing. A machine tags the price, applies plastic wrap and, using a system that borrows from Deutsche Post AG (DPW)’s DHL shipping unit, slots each item for delivery.
Ortega keeps inventory low and stock fresh by constantly feeding stores new fashions instead of tying designs solely to seasons. Competitor Hennes & Mauritz AB (HMB) of Sweden, Europe’s No. 2 clothing retailer by revenue, can’t act as quickly because it outsources all of its production, according to a 2003 Harvard Business School study by Pankaj Ghemawat and Jose Luis Nueno. Inditex has maintained its edge, Harvard’s Koehn says.
H&M spokesman Hacan Andersson says the retailer, controlled by billionaire Stefan Persson -- No. 16 in Bloomberg’s index -- doesn’t comment on competitors.
“Our aim is to offer our customers fashion and quality at the best price, getting many reactions that we are right on trend,” he says.
Inditex doesn’t make everything at home. For less-fashion- sensitive items such as jeans and office wear, it outsources about half of its production to lower-cost countries.
Ortega’s drive for a cheap price tag has sparked a clash with Brazil, home to 35 Zara stores. Last year, government inspectors discovered more than a dozen Bolivians laboring in slavelike conditions, living in shops where they sewed garments for Zara Brasil Ltda.
Though the Bolivians worked for a supplier hired by the Inditex subsidiary, the Labor Ministry said Inditex was responsible. Jesus Echevarria, Inditex’s communications director, apologized at a congressional hearing in Brasilia, saying the company didn’t know about the situation. Inditex agreed to commit 3.4 million reais ($1.7 million) to ensure legal labor conditions throughout its Brazilian production chain -- a practice the company had pledged to implement on a global level as early as 2001.
This year, to prevent its inclusion in the Labor Ministry’s so-called dirty list of companies to which state lenders deny credit, Inditex filed suit with the Justice Ministry, saying it had been denied its constitutional right to defend itself against the accusation. The suit was pending as of mid-October.
The son of a railway worker, young Amancio knew about poverty. He dropped out of school at about 13 to run errands for a clothing shop. He later joined his brother, Antonio, and sister Josefa as salespeople at a competing store. There, he met Rosalia Mera, his first wife.
In 1963, the siblings went into business producing inexpensive versions of matelasse bathrobes. Rosalia, Josefa and Antonio’s wife, Primitiva, stitched the first quilted items by hand.
“I thought it was not fair that only wealthy ladies could dress well,” Ortega said, according to a 2003 article by Patience Wheatcroft in the Times of London.
Ortega began his global push in 1968 after visiting a Paris clothing fair with Javier Canas Caramelo, an early partner.
“We went to see how people were doing it in the rest of the world,” says Canas, 64, who now runs a clothing business in Arteixo called Etiem. “This is a man who’s always looking ahead.”
Relying on several hundred employees in Arteixo, Ortega opened the first Zara in 1975. He’d planned to name the store Zorba, after Zorba the Greek, a 1964 film starring Anthony Quinn, but a bar in La Coruna had claimed the name. Since Ortega had already ordered molds to create the letters for Z-O-R-B-A, he improvised with Z-A-R-A. He opened stores along the routes he traveled to buy fabrics and bought a computer in 1976 to analyze customers’ desires, according to the Harvard study.
“It became ever clearer to me what I had to do,” he told O’Shea, explaining his ambitions.
By 1990, he had built a Zara in every Spanish city of at least 100,000 people and expanded to Paris and New York. He took his first vacation only after Inditex’s initial public offering in 2001, Camunas says.
As business blossomed, Ortega’s personal life grew turbulent. Mera had given birth to a daughter, Sandra, now 44 and with a $1.1 billion fortune as of Oct. 5. A son, Marcos, was born mentally disabled, which O’Shea calls one of Ortega’s great sorrows.
In 1983, Ortega fathered another daughter, Marta, with an Inditex employee. After divorcing Ortega, Mera remains Inditex’s second-largest shareholder, with a fortune of $5.2 billion. The employee, Flora Perez Marcote, became Ortega’s second wife two decades later.
“My biggest regret is not having dedicated enough time to my family,” he told O’Shea.
In a rare splurge, he built an equestrian center near La Coruna to oblige Marta’s love of horses. Of his three children, only Marta, who’s approaching 30, works at Inditex, as a buyer for the Zara Woman line alongside her father in Arteixo. After starting as a salesperson, she may take the reins one day, O’Shea says.
Ortega took a definitive step in his succession planning last year, naming Chief Executive Officer Pablo Isla as chairman. In 2001, he set up the Fundacion Amancio Ortega with a 60-million-euro endowment, mostly for educational causes. He has given no public indication what will happen to his fortune when he dies.
With day-to-day management decided and his fashions selling from Los Angeles to Tokyo, Ortega spends more time swimming and reading with friends at La Coruna’s members-only Club Financiero Atlantico before heading to Arteixo. A waiter sometimes spots the world’s third-richest man strolling across the cobblestones of Plaza Maria Pita in La Coruna -- a billionaire enjoying a private moment despite his extraordinary wealth.
“His mind-set, his character, I see him exactly the same as always,” says Canas, his friend since the 1960s. “He’s not out there telling the world, ‘I’m No. 3.’”
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How We Crunched the Numbers
In calculating a billionaire’s net worth, we valued his or her stakes in publicly traded companies using closing prices of Oct. 5. Valuations of foreign assets were converted to U.S. dollars.
Closely held companies were valued in several ways. We compared the average enterprise value-to-sales; enterprise value-to-earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization; price-to-book value; or price-to-earnings multiples of similar publicly traded companies. Comparables were chosen based on the closely held company’s industry, size and location. Estimates of company debt were based on the average net debt-to-Ebitda multiple of peers.
A liquidity discount of 5 percent was applied to most closely held companies where assets might be hard to sell. Higher liquidity discounts were given to companies for which the structures were more complex. No liquidity discounts were used in calculating public stakes. In some instances, we also applied a country risk discount based on a person’s concentration of assets.
We usually valued real estate by applying average regional occupancy and capitalization rates to the square footage of closely held commercial properties. For personal property, we used its appraisal value. Land was valued using the market price per acre.
Estimates for art, furniture and jewelry were based on their insured value and expert assessments. Yachts, planes and other vehicles were assessed based on market value. Net worth estimates include dividend income, proceeds from asset sales and real estate.
In cases where most of a fortune comes from closely held companies, estimated dividends are calculated only if historical financial information is available.
We deducted taxes based on personal income, dividend and capital gains rates in a billionaire’s country of residence. Taxes were applied at the highest rate unless there was evidence to support a lower percentage. For estimates of cash and other invested assets, we applied a hybrid market return based on holdings in cash, government bonds, equities and commodities.
We attempted to identify and confirm all potential liabilities. No assumptions were made about personal debt. Family members often hold a portion of the billionaire’s assets. Such transfers don’t change the nature of who ultimately controls the fortune. We operate under the rule that all billionaire fortunes are inherently family fortunes.
Each billionaire or his or her representative has been given an opportunity to respond to questions regarding the net worth estimate. Bloomberg News editorial policy is to not cover Bloomberg LP. As a result, Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, wasn’t considered for this ranking.
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