As the BBC’s Apprentice series comes to an end this week, we look at the man doing the hiring. How successful a businessman is he really? Jane Lewis reports
The success of The Apprentice, which, as The Guardian noted, “shuddered to a climax this week with a live girl-on-girl finale”, marks the third incarnation of Sir Alan Sugar, the grumpy computer salesman from Hackney. Having epitomised the no-nonsense breed of Eighties entrepreneur, Sugar followed up with a less successful role as chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, and his leathery scowl is now the face of business on TV. Sugar, who this week picked up a Bafta for the show, sees himself as a role model for today’s wayward youth. And in a way, he is: you know you’re onto something when even nine-year-olds can be heard telling each other: “You’re a lightweight. You’re fired!”
Yet there’s a deliciously British irony about the fact that the nation’s favourite entrepreneur is, frankly, a has-been. According to the BBC hype, “Sir Alan is sure that if The Apprentice was around 30 years ago, he would have won it.” Not on the Amstrad evidence he wouldn’t, says Alison Smith in the FT. Sugar might be worth £790m, but the bulk of his wealth springs from his property holdings; the modern Amstrad is a shadow of the £1.5bn colossus it was in its heyday. Sugar hasn’t had a blockbuster for years: Amstrad has just withdrawn its much-hyped “em@iler” – a hybrid phone-cum-email device, and even its bread-and-butter satellite TV set-top business hasn’t done enough to stem a 12% profit plunge. “TV’s Sir Alan is an upfront, straight-talking guy,” says Smith. But the contrast with the “opaque” line he habitually takes as Amstrad chairman couldn’t be greater.
In fairness to Sugar, he’s the first to admit he failed to seize his chances. “We could have been an IBM. I blame myself for not having a wider vision, a longer-term view,” he told The Sunday Times last year. “I’m more of a short-term trader, I want to have it now.” But even those who cavil at his abrasive ways and rudeness admit he’s brave. “He was the first to expose the bung culture” in football, says Lynn Barber in The Observer, after a famously robust encounter (“she was lucky she didn’t get a left hook”, Sugar said later). Others point out that Sugar’s stormy decade at Spurs at least restored the club’s financial fortunes. And few can object to his philanthropic streak – he’s a generous donor to Great Ormond Street – or his brilliant flashes of deadpan humour.
The greatest charge levelled at Sugar is that his show presents “a damaging distortion” of life in business, says Chris Blackhurst in the Evening Standard. “It’s as if trendy TV types, who wouldn’t know a P&L account from a wine-bar receipt, have imagined what a greedy, grasping capitalist world is really like. To his shame, Sugar goes along with them.” To judge by this year’s contestants, “the more rudely you behave, the more you tell lies, pass the buck and knife your work mates”, the more likely you are to succeed. This is demonstrably wrong. The leaders of Britain’s most successful firms don’t behave like that. But then “none has the monstrous ego of Alan Sugar”. On the plus side, Sugar has always had an “old-fashioned belief in trust and integrity”, says John Waples in The Sunday Times. We may yet see this in action. Sugar’s condition for a third series is that he has more control. “I want more of a business message,” he says. “I don’t want it to turn into Big Brother on wheels.” Time will tell.
The rough diamond versus The Donald
One of the most entertaining subplots of The Apprentice is the ongoing spat between Sugar and his US counterpart, Donald Trump. When the show first aired in Britain, Sugar was seen as “the poor cousin” of the flamboyant US tycoon. Since then, he has demonstrated he is more than capable of giving The Donald a run for his money. Indeed, the famous Sugar mantra (“I don’t like bullshitters, I don’t like arselickers, I don’t like schmoozers…”) could well have been phrased with Trump in mind. Most recently, Sugar accused Trump of being “loud, garish and full of himself”. Trump hit back by claiming that Sugar owes all his TV success to him as the star of the original show. “I make more money from his show than he does. He’s only there because of me, so I consider that he works for me.”
But when it comes to sheer grit, Trump, who inherited much of his wealth, will never be a match for the Hackney Del Boy. Sugar set up on his own at 18, flogging TV aerials from the back of a van, and retains a contemptuous attitude towards business qualifications, such as MBAs – “they’re all just a lot of bollocks, frankly”. The big money started coming in when, having floated Amstrad in 1981, he cornered the market for cheap PCs in Britain – before succumbing to the flood of (arguably more reliable) IBM clones. In his heyday, Sugar was described by Rupert Murdoch as “probably Britain’s greatest entrepreneur”. That now seems questionable. Yet he is well on his way to becoming a national treasure. As the FT noted last year, Sugar’s rough-diamond qualities have ensured he has pushed “into many people’s viewing schedules, if not their hearts”.