Tributes have been paid to El Corte Inglés chairman Isidoro Alvarez, who died at the weekend aged 79.

Alvarez, seen as one of the greats of European retail, built up the Spanish department store group after inheriting a 15% stake from his uncle, Ramon Areces, who founded the business.

During his tenure the retailer extended its operations into fields such as insurance and hypermarkets and by 2013 sales stood at $18.5bn (£11.35bn).

Spanish economy minister Luis de Guindos described Alvarez as “one of the great businessmen of this country”.

Gilbert Harrison, chairman of US investment and advisory firm Financo, said Alavarez was “a merchant prince” and “a great legend of retail”.

He recalled: “He loved visiting department stores every time he was in New York and found new and exciting merchandise that he believed would sell well in Spain.

“He loved to eat steak at the best restaurants in the city, meeting people each time.

“Many years ago we were at 21 Club where I introduced him to Tommy Hilfiger. At the time, Tommy was not in Spain but after [Alvarez saw] the product it was soon sold in El Corte Inglés.”

Michael Poynor, international retail expert and founder of advisory business Retail Expertise, said: “Isidoro’s single-minded dedication to the company created by his uncle in the 1930s is unparalleled.

“He joined at the age of 18 and took over the presidency of El Corte Inglés on the death of his uncle in 1989.

“In the ensuing 25 years the company has attained a degree of national pre-eminence that no other retail business has approached in any other market I know.”