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Suddenly, he became Spain's richest man: On May 23, Armancio Ortega, the reclusive owner of Zara clothing stores, took the parent company of his empire, Industrias de Diseno Textil (Inditex) public on the Madrid Stock Exchange. Despite weakness in Europe's markets, investors valued the company, which owns five clothing store chains with more than 1,000 stores in 34 countries, at $10 billion. That was a strong vote of confidence for the 65-year-old entrepreneur, who has been working in the rag trade in Spain since he was just 14.
Ortega launched his first Zara store in 1975 in the shipbuilding town of La Coruna on Spain's Northwestern coast. The formula--selling trendy clothing for men and women--worked well, and Ortega began to build a retail empire. In the past five years, Inditex has doubled in size, recording $2.3 billion in sales last year and net profits of $233 million. About 80% of the sales come from the flagship Zara chain.
As Zara has grown, Ortega has become known as an innovator. Rather than ordering clothing from subcontractors, Zara designs and manufactures almost everything itself. New designs are dispatched twice a week to Zara stores. "Thanks to the quick turnover, Inditex can get a consumer into their store three or four times a season rather than just once," says Oscar Marcos, an analyst with Merrill Lynch in Madrid.
The big challenge facing Ortega is figuring out how to keep the company growing. For the quiet entrepreneur from a remote Spanish town, there's still a big world to stitch up.