Dateline: Madrid: The Cuban who conquered Spain

YOU MIGHT think that a business devoted to biking pizzas to Spanish homes would be doubly doomed. Firstly, because of Spaniards' deep attachment to their own distinctive contribution to European fast food, the "tapa". Secondly, because a nation reputed to live in the street, returning home only for vast set-piece meals, seems hardly likely to dial up foreign food to eat from a box.

Wrong on all counts. Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals, 51, who launched his TelePizza delivery chain from a single outlet in a modest suburb of Madrid 10 years ago, has transformed the eating habits of a nation and become one of the richest men in Spain.

"Anybody could have done it. It just takes common sense and a lot of hard work," says Mr Fernandez, an energetic Cuban, naturalised Spanish, with a flashing smile and a liking for Havana cigars. He is perhaps the only chairman of a Spanish-quoted company to go to work in a short-sleeved polo shirt.

His timing was perfect. Not only did he awaken Spain's taste for pizzas, he launched upon the Madrid stock exchange in December 1996, at the moment thousands of Spaniards developed a ravenous appetite for shares. Telepizza shares were oversubscribed 46 times in the most heavily subscribed flotation Spain had ever seen.

The product was a winner with new Spanish investors because, in addition to being explosively profitable, it was new, easy to understand and fun. TelePizza became the starriest performer on the Madrid stock market by far, two years running. Profits, at 3.6bn pesetas (pounds 15m) were up 45 per cent last year, and new outlets open every day.

Last week Mr Fernandez flew to Edinburgh as president of Europe's 500 most enterprising companies. Next week he's off to Harvard to tell fast food's heartland how to conquer the world with takeaway pizzas. His is the first such company to outstrip McDonald's in a national market. Baked at 300 degrees centigrade for five minutes 50 seconds, his pizzas are delivered by more than 8,000 young bikers within half an hour. Prices are held low, margins tight and profits generated by sales volume. When a outlet sells more than 10,000 pizzas a month, another opens nearby to maintain the company's quality of service.

Mr Fernandez, who was born in Cuba of Spanish descent and brought up in the US, mounted his operation on hard-driving, hands-on American principles. His methods, so successful in retrospect, fly in the face of Spanish norms, where face-to-face customer contact is all-important and everyone expects to be kept waiting.

"The market is a battlefield: you have to gain ground and fight off others who have seen the same opportunity. I try to foster an American work ethic to get hands-on experience at all levels of the business. I don't want my executives to come straight from university and land into an office," he insists.

In the early days he took his pizzas round in his own truck, having perfected the product with some rule-of-thumb market research: he gave away pizzas to teenagers around the neighbourhood of Barrio del Pilar every day for a fortnight, experimenting with different dough mixtures until they gave him the thumbs-up.

The formula took off instantly. Spaniards loved the novelty of ordering something by phone and receiving it within minutes. Fast food was barely known here when Fernandez started out. But he spotted the same trends at work in Spain that had inspired the fast-food revolution in the US. More and more women were joining the labour market with less time to shop and cook, so families looked to fast food as an appetising alternative to traditional home cooking. The sector in Spain is only a tenth of that in Britain, but it is growing at more than 30 per cent a year.

"Leo", as even his bikers call him, fled Cuba at the age of 13 in 1960, after Fidel Castro came to power. "My father sent me to Florida to improve my English, but a year later my parents' property was expropriated and they came too."

He joined the US army in 1967, and served as a captain in the Vietnam war. He narrowly avoided being sent on a spying mission to Cambodia when a soldier he had trained in officer school at Fort Belvoir assigned him a desk job.

Speaking Spanish with a Cuban lilt and English like a Floridian, he switches effortlessly between the two. He became a soap salesman for Proctor and Gamble in 1971 and within three months broke through his annual target for selling tablets of Camay. Disgusted at the paltry $1,000 bonus he was offered, he quit and joined Johnson and Johnson, who in 1981 sent him to run sales and marketing in Spain.

"By then I was 40 and my father told me that if you hadn't founded a business by then, it would be too late. So I decided to give it a try." He was still at Johnsons when he started putting in night-shifts at his little pizza parlour, receiving funny looks from his executive colleagues. But his detractors were soon eating their words, along with his pizzas. TelePizza breezed through Spain's 1993 recession with a 60 per cent growth in sales.

In 1997, Fernandez bought out his main Spanish competitor, Pizza World, increasing his outlets by 110 at a stroke and becoming market leader, controlling 62 per cent of the country's pizza deliveries. The move gave the company a big stake in the northeast region of Catalonia, springboard for imminent expansion into France. Mr Fernandez has persuaded Poles, Mexicans, Chileans and Portuguese to tuck into his pizzas, and he is looking out for other countries to conquer. Recent acquisitions in Spain include a transport firm and a cheese provider.

More than a year ago the company opened a chicken and ribs outlet in Madrid - TeleGrill - and plans to diversify into oriental, Mediterranean and Tex-Mex food. "It's important to offer variety, because you don't want to eat pizza every day," Fernandez explains with implacable and cheery logic.

He strives to turn traditional Spanish habits to his advantage, launching special summer promotions for men left alone in the city while their families are away enjoying beach holidays. Named after the Spanish nickname for such temporarily single men - who have a reputation as sexual predators - his tailor-made menus for them are called "TeleRodriguez".

TelePizza has even tuned into Spain's passion for football. Millions watch football on television six nights a week, and for matches between top teams, such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, Mr Fernandez hires extra staff who deliver hundreds of thousands of pizzas. He is discreet about own sporting loyalties, conscious that in the competitive world of football and fast food, he always comes out on top: "You see, sometimes Real Madrid wins, sometimes Barcelona wins. But TelePizza always wins."

Like hoover and xerox, TelePizza has become a generic word in Spain and the company's success has spawned dozens of wannabes, like TelePaella and TeleChino. As conclusive proof that the American way has vanquished the bastion of Spanish fast food, a leaflet just dropped through my letterbox offering, inevitably, TeleTapas.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power