Amancio Ortega Gaona – The Man Behind ZARA
August 23, 2013 1 Comment
The youngest of four children, Ortega was born in Busdongo de Arbas, a hamlet of 60 people in northern Spain, in 1936, just as the Spanish Civil War was erupting. The family scraped by on his father’s railway job while his mother worked as a housemaid. When Amancio was a small boy, the family moved to La Coruña. There, home was a row house that abutted the train tracks and that served, as it still does today, as the railway workers’ quarters. Amancio might have joined the rail service too, had it not been for one fateful evening when he was just 13. Walking home from his school, he and his mother stopped at a local store, where he stood by as his mother pleaded for credit. “He heard someone say, ‘Señora, I cannot give this to you. You have to pay for it,’He felt so humiliated, he decided he would never go back to school.
Barely in his teens, Ortega found a job as a shop hand for a local shirtmaker called Gala, which still sits on the same corner in downtown La Coruña. Today the store feels frozen in time: plaid shirts, fishermen’s caps, and woolen cardigans Gala’s owner, José Martínez, inherited the store from his father. He befriended young Amancio when they were both 14. The boys spent their afternoons folding shirts at Gala and riding bikes around town.
By 16, Ortega had concluded that the real money could be made giving customers exactly what they wanted, quickly, rather than buying up inventory in the hopes it would sell. To do that, he needed to figure out what people were looking for, then make it. He would need to control the supply chain. Ortega had the ideal environment: Galicia. With few job opportunities, thousands of men worked at sea, leaving their women to struggle alone back home. The women would do anything for a little money, and they were really good at sewing.Ortega began organizing thousands of women into sewing cooperatives. He oversaw a thriving production of quilted bathrobes for his first company, GOA.Most women were thrilled to be hired. The conditions were really pretty good.The workers knew Amancio well. He was very close to the workers. It was a family business: Ortega ran design, his brother Antonio headed the commercial side, and his sister Josefa was the bookkeeper. The company trucked in textiles from Barcelona, cutting out the middlemen.
With enough cash, Ortega opened his first storefront in 1975, two blocks from his teenage job at Gala. He named it Zara, because his preferred name, Zorba, was taken. From the outset, Ortega made speed the driving force. Decades later it still is. Zara stores refresh their stock twice a week and receive orders within 48 hours, tops. Ortega imposed the 48-hour rule in the 1970s, forcing him to open the first Zara stores near La Coruña on the well-traveled truck route to Barcelona’s textile factories. Even as the company grew, Ortega stuck to his two rules.
It took Ortega 10 years to found the holding company, Inditex, with his first wife Rosalia Mera and open his first international store in Portugal — whose labor force, cheaper than Spain’s, made it the next obvious place to produce; New York and Paris followed in the late 1980s. While Zara proliferated across Europe through the 1990s, much of the production was kept close to home.
The Inditex HQ is part sci-fi machine, part old-fashioned retail — a well-oiled operation organized around Ortega’s twin principles. It is restocking continually at top speed. Inside, its high-gloss, white, minimalist interiors resemble a humongous Zara store. Along two arteries down the main floor, hundreds of designers and sales analysts work at long white counters in a vast open space, grouped around regions of Zara’s empire. The pace is frantic: Designers create about three items a day, and patternmakers cut one sample from each. Seated alongside them are commercial-sales specialists, each with regional expertise, who dissect tastes and customer habits using sales reports from Zara store managers to see what’s selling and (more telling) what customers are looking for. Inspiration comes from the streets, clubs, bars, and restaurants. Each is trained to keep an eye on what people are wearing, just as Ortega has done for decades.
At one end of the Zara design floor is a small team that manages Zara.com. There, flat-screen monitors linked by webcam to offices in Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York act as trendspotters, since countries and cities are not monolithic: Tokyo’s Ginza district, for example, resembles SoHo in Manhattan more than Tokyo’s business district. The obsession for spotting new tastes is pure Ortega. The people at Inditex never go to fashion shows.They track bloggers and listen to customers and change their opinions all the time since what seems great today, in two weeks is the worst idea ever.
What keeps this machine ticking is the logistics department which is responsible for such turnaround speeds in places as far-flung as Baku and Melbourne. At 400,000 square feet, the logistics building is more than three times the size of headquarters across the street, and is organized around a Rube Goldberg-style labyrinth of conveyer belts extending five stories high. It delivers customized orders to every Zara store on the planet. There is a firm 24-hour turnaround deadline for Europe, the Middle East, and much of the U.S., and 48 hours for Asia and Latin America.
Though he officially handed the reins to Pablo Isla in July 2011, Ortega remains the company’s muse, inspiration, and biggest shareholder. Astonishingly, Ortega has never had an office. Even now, the world’s third-richest man sits at a desk at the end of Zara Woman’s open workspace.In semiretirement, Ortega now lives in a five-story sea-facing house in La Coruña, on a busy city street, with little evident security. He eats breakfast every morning (eggs and fries, say friends) with acquaintances at La Coruña’s businessmen’s club, and retreats on weekends to his country house, where he raises chickens and goats and gathers his grown children. A creature of habit, Ortega devotes weeks a year to hiking pilgrimage routes in Galicia, and his lifelong aversion to flying keeps him from traveling much.