Butcher’s boy who has discreetly risen to become Spain’s second-richest man

Mercadona supermarket chain owner Juan Roig is known for the austerity of his habits and a rigorous treatment of staff

Juan Roig saw that the future lay in Mercadona's good-value own brands before the crisis took a grip in Spain.
Juan Roig saw that the future lay in Mercadona's good-value own brands before the crisis took a grip in Spain. tania castro

The owner of Mercadona is described as a practical man, direct, austere and a little cold in his approach if he doesn't know you. Valencia-born Juan Roig is obsessed with productivity and a tough negotiator. Those that know him say he doesn't come across as being rich. That could be because one of the richest men in Spain is the son of butchers. In his office, where he spends little time, he has a small gymnasium where he exercises during his few spare moments. That helps the 64-four-year-old look after his back, which has been troubling him for years.

He travels extensively throughout Spain during the working week and a lot of his management meetings are held in the van he uses for visits to Mercadona's supermarkets and suppliers.

Roig insists he is still a storekeeper, only the store is much bigger now. The Cárnicas Roig butcher's shops his parents opened in the small Valencia town of La Pobla de Farnals, later converted into general stores, were the seed for the chain of supermarkets Juan Roig now controls. He formed a partnership with three of five siblings and they bought their parents out in 1981. Roig later bought out practically all of his siblings' holdings in the business. The eight stores acquired from his parents have now become a supermarket chain with 1,150 outlets and have brought with them a fortune estimated in billions.

Roig spends his weekends giving classes at a business school for young entrepreneurs on Saturday mornings, playing paddle-tennis and watching basketball on television and going to games. The rest of the time he spends with his family.

He has been linked to the conservative Popular Party (PP). The name of Mercadona even appeared as a donor in the secret ledgers of Luis Bárcenas, the PP's disgraced former treasurer. Roig denies any links. Sources at business organizations where Roig holds sway describe him as "independent," with no clear political affiliations.

"One thing's for sure: he's no diplomat," one businessman says. He says what he thinks no matter how it comes across, although it is difficult in the business community to find someone who has words other than of praise for his acumen.

Roig tells his directors not to spend too much time in the office"

Roig didn't come across as a business leader in the making when he was young. He wasn't a brilliant student, either at the Jesuit college where he first studied in Valencia or at the boarding school he was sent to later. Nowadays, the few business conferences he attends as a speaker are jam-packed, with the audience anxious to glean something about the secret of his success.

He didn't stand out either as a student at the economics department of Valencia University, but at least he met his main partner there: his wife Hortensia Herrero, whom he married in 1973. She controls 27 percent of the shares of Mercadona and is the company's deputy chairwoman.

According to Forbes magazine, Juan Roig is the second-richest man in Spain after Inditex founder Amancio Ortega, with a fortune estimated at 5.8 billion euros. In reality, that is the fortune of Roig and his wife, who together own 78 percent of Mercadona. But as one of Roig's associates points out, since Mercadona is not listed, Forbes's estimates are simply that.

Roig has four children with Hortensia Herrero, who is now 62 years old: Amparo, the twins Hortensia and Carolina, and Juana. Only Carolina works directly for Mercadona at the moment as a coordinator of the market analysis division.

The young Hortensia is the secretary general of the EDEM business school, with which her father is closely involved. Amparo is an architect, and the youngest of the brood, Juana, "is developing her own businesses," according to sources close to the family. The daughters are not shareholders of the company but all of them sit on Mercadona's board of directors.

Juan Roig already has seven grandchildren and the family is well known in Valencia. The patriarch hasn't tried to shield his daughters from the public view and they have taken part actively in the city's social activities such as Las Fallas festival. But their appearances in public have always been discrete. Juana got married in May. But in keeping with the family's habitual discretion, the wedding celebration was elegant rather than the extravaganza at the disposition of Roig's fortune.

He believes that Spaniards should imitate the work ethic of

Several people who habitually work with Roig highlight his curiosity. He likes to know everything directly. He walks around stores. He deals face-to-face with suppliers.

"Roig tells his directors they shouldn't spend much time in the office, because you can't find out about what is really happening in an office," another person who knows the businessman says. This has enabled him to keep ahead of things and to see that Spaniards would take to the own brands he packed his stores with just before the current crisis broke. He was also quick to realize that labeling products was a waste of time, while Mercadona was the first company in Spain to introduce bar codes, in 1982.

Roig turns up for meetings with his ideas well thought out. He judges his directors by their ability to get results and doesn't hesitate to get rid of someone who has failed to meet their targets. But he's not afraid to shift tack; if something isn't working, no matter how good the idea seemed at the time, he changes it, a number of businessmen note.

Panic spreads among the staff of his supermarkets when they know Roig is due to pay a visit. As soon as he arrives the questions start.

"He can ask the coordinator of the outlet for customer numbers, but he is also likely to ask the person manning the fruit stall how many oranges have been sold," a former employee says. He requires all of his employees, no matter what job they hold down, to read books on business quality; among them one called Los monstruos y el gimnasio (or, The Monsters and the gymnasium), a story written by Alberto Gálgano that is half parable half a self-help book on how to deal with customers. There is an official uniform for supermarket workers, while for office staff there is a dress code that includes suits for men and make-up and formal wear for female employees.

The Roig legend grows with his wealth. You could almost fill a book with the aphorisms he lets drop for the benefit of those around. Some of them that have done the rounds among his workers include: "As Roig says, you don't have to do a job you like, you have to make your job enjoyable." This, one employee says, is one of the most used by bosses.

It is also said that he requires his praetorian guard, the directors he works most closely with, to keep a one-euro-cent coin in their pockets to remind them that they are working to shave that one cent off costs and prices.

Those who know him well claim that Roig was always shy. That seems a strange thing to say about a man who in public encourages Spaniards to "imitate the Chinese work ethic." This shyness "at times comes across as coldness in those he doesn't know," an acquaintance of Roig says. Although he has always limited his public appearances, he now takes part in more events and organizes meetings to promote his charitable causes. He has been developing this philanthropic side of his activities in recent times, particularly over the past two years. He has always given money for sports initiatives out of his own pocket.

While his two brothers have gone for soccer — Francisco Roig was chairman of Valencia and Fernando Roig remains in charge of Villarreal — Juan Roig's passion is basketball. He chaired the club Pamesa Valencia, (now known as Valencia Basket) and remains a sponsor of the club. He has also expanded his assistance program for entrepreneurs. A number of people say he is anxious to give back to society what he got out of it. Another of the catchphrases attributed to Roig. Or so the legend has it.

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