As an entrepreneur, you can't help but be inspired and motivated by the people who have overcome the odds to become extremely successful. Richard Branson battled dyslexia. George Solos survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest. Andrew Carnegie, Sam Walton, and Amancio Ortega escaped poverty.
If you're not familiar with the name Amancio Ortega, you shouldn't feel embarrassed. He happens to be incredibly reclusive, despite being the richest man in Europe, and the fourth in world, with an estimated net worth of over $70 billion. In fact, there's even a rumor that there wasn't even a picture of him until 1999!
Even if you don't know the man, you most likely know of his clothing retailer, Zara. But how did following a dream take Amancio Ortega from poverty to being worth $70 billion-plus?
A rags-to-riches story.
To understand the story of how Zara became such a dominant force in the fashion industry and made Ortega billions, you must first understand the childhood and humble beginnings of Ortega.
Unlike most other wealthy Europeans, Amancio Ortega was born into poverty. Things were so dire for the Ortega family that his mother was denied credit at a grocery store, which meant she couldn't make dinner for the family that night. Amancio, at just 13 or 14 years old, left school the following day after witnessing this embarrassing situation. He got a job as a messenger boy at a shop and never looked back. This was a defining moment and the moment that has continued to drive him throughout his life.
By the time Amancio was 40 years old, he had founded Zara in his hometown of La Coruna, Spain, in 1975. A decade later, he founded Zara's parent company, Inditex, and opened his first store outside of Spain, in Portugal. Throughout the late '80s and '90s, Zara expanded to Paris, London, and New York City. Today, Zara has more than 2,000 stores in 88 countries.
But, what makes Zara such an appealing brand to so many global customers? It all goes back to the founder and his vision and work ethic.
Give customers what they want and be faster than everyone else.
Ortega has two rules for Zara that he has never strayed from since 1975: "Give the customers what they want and be faster than everyone else."
The idea of giving customers what they want has been with Ortega since, at the age of 16, he was working in retail. Instead of forcing customers to purchase products they didn't care about, Ortega kept with the fashion trends, but he has made them more accessible for the everyday consumer in both design and price. However, Zara has been able to take this a step further -- also focusing on city specific trends. For example, a white jacket may not sell in New York because the preferred color is cream. Amazingly, there is a system in place where that information is sent to Spain and overnight cream-colored jackets arrive on 42nd Street.
Additionally, Zara is able to replenish existing items in just two weeks and is able to customize orders in 24-48 hours, thanks to keeping everything in-house. According to Loreta Garca, head of Zara woman's trends department, "What seems great today, in two weeks is the worst idea ever." That quick turnaround gives Zara the ability to be ahead of competitors that outsource manufacturing in Asia.
No wonder Daniel Piette, fashion director of Louis Vuitton, has described Zara as "the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world."
As fashion author Mark Tungate explains, "The secret to Zara's appeal is that, although shopping there is cheap, it doesn't feel cheap." Tungate adds that "Zara is renowned for whisking budget interpretations of catwalk styles into its stores with breathtaking speed. "
Instead of spending money on a grand marketing plan, Zara let's its products do all the promotion. The brand delivers quality products that people actually want at a fair price. With that strategy, Zara has loyal customers who will spread the word about the brand.
Amancio dresses modestly, visits the same coffee shop every day, and even has lunch with his employees. Instead of being separated from the action, he has even been seen down in the trenches working with his designers and manufacturers. There has been a story recalled in Fortune that Amancio locked himself in a bathroom while attending the opening of Zara's Manhattan store. Why? Because he was so overcome with emotion after seeing so many customers pouring into the store.
Despite all of his success, Ortega has remained humble and shows humility when it comes to the fashion empire that he has built.
Do what you love.
Ortega has long had a passion for fashion. This passion is the reason why he launched Zara. This passion is the reason why he never sat behind a desk, but worked with his employees on designs. And, even though he is semiretired, Amancio still keeps a lookout for the latest trends and provides valuable input. He does this because he loves what he's doing.
As an entrepreneur, it's easy to see how Amancio Ortega has gone from poverty to being worth more than $70 billion in 35 years. He deserves this success more than most. He has put customers first, was able to outdo his rivals, has shown humility, and has remained passionate throughout all of these years.