Florentino Perez. File photo: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP
But lesser known — at least abroad — is his other hat as president of ACS, one of the world's biggest private construction groups, and a past in politics that make him one of the most influential men in Spain.
Serious and impeccably mannered, the 70-year-old who has just relinquished his position as CEO — but remains president — built ACS up from a struggling company to a multinational with 176,000 employees and turnover of 32 billion
euros ($35 billion) last year.
The group has over the years won contracts for underground networks in New York, London and Ottawa and a new highway in Australia — among others.
Simultaneously, Perez has presided over Real Madrid twice — first between 2000 and 2006 — and then since 2009.
Both spells have been marked by blockbuster signings and more recently by picking French football star Zinedine Zidane as coach — a move he told AFP in an interview last year “changed our lives” after a difficult patch.
Under Zidane, Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2016 and is well on its way to the final this year.
At the VIP boxes of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, political and business elites often gather, reportedly sealing deals — “a cliche,” Perez once retorted in a television interview.
Short-lived political career
According to a 2016 Forbes ranking, Perez is one of the richest people in Spain, worth $1.8 billion (1.6 billion euros).
But the man whose father owned two perfume shops claims not to be attached to money, espousing “normality” and “work” as his values.
The engineering graduate from Madrid's Polytechnic University nevertheless quickly acquired a taste for power.
After a short spell in the private sector, he entered politics in 1976, working variously in Madrid's city hall and as head of infrastructure in the transport ministry.
He was also appointed secretary-general of the short-lived centrist Democratic Reformist Party, but he quit politics in 1986 when the grouping failed to get any lawmakers in general elections.
By then, he had already bought along with friends a struggling construction firm at a low price.
A series of mergers and acquisitions later, ACS was born — a group that now deals in construction and services like the maintenance of high-power lines.
“He's not really a great entrepreneur nor a great financial expert, but a great public relations agent,” said Carlos Sanchez, an economics journalist at the El Confidencial online daily.
This flair for public relations helped him reap benefits from public-private collaborations, with ACS often awarded contracts when authorities decided to privatise services like rubbish collection or radio-television transmitters.
“You needed really good contacts with political leaders and he had them,” Sanchez says.
One of his most famous “coups” was in 2001.
Then president of Real Madrid, he sold the club's training grounds to the city for 480 million euros, and ACS was then awarded a contract to build three high-rises there.
Sanchez says ACS also long profited from EU funding to Spain's construction sector.
During an ongoing trial for corruption involving former members of the ruling Popular Party, one of the main defendants said ACS was among the companies that paid bribes in exchange for public contracts.
But Perez has repeatedly said that his “highly competitive” company does not need to pay anything to get contracts.
A Spanish stock market analyst who prefers to remain anonymous said Perez always seems to have government support.
“His investments are generally guaranteed in one way or another,” he said.
So for instance in 2014, the government paid a consortium that included ACS more than a billion euros in compensation for having to abandon the operation of an underwater gas storage facility it built that risked triggering earthquakes.
The analyst said that his colleagues don't dare criticise a company presided over by “a very powerful person in the country.”
But he acknowledged that ACS has performed well, moving “really well and quickly when the construction sector stagnated in Spain to develop outside the country.”