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Sir Alan Sugar: The Biography

Sir Alan Sugar: The Biography

by Charlie Burden

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From a humble background, growing up in an East London council flat, Sir Alan Sugar has become a multi-million business success story and television sensation, amassing a net worth of ?830million and a place in the Sunday Times Rich List. He has also become a massive television star, thanks to his popular BBC show The Apprentice, in which he growls at contestants the


From a humble background, growing up in an East London council flat, Sir Alan Sugar has become a multi-million business success story and television sensation, amassing a net worth of ?830million and a place in the Sunday Times Rich List. He has also become a massive television star, thanks to his popular BBC show The Apprentice, in which he growls at contestants the famous catchphrase: You're Fired! This biography traces his rags-to-riches story from his East End childhood boiling beetroots for the local greengrocer, to becoming a Lord with a seat at the table of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Leaving school at 16, the tough-talking youngster sold car aerials and electrical products from the back of a van he had bought for just ?100. Within five years he had formed Amstrad, which went public in 1980, setting him on the road to becoming a multi-millionaire, with a string of successful businesses. In the 1990s, Sir Alan became chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, paying off millions of pounds of club debt. He is now an advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Sir Alan has also become famous for his generous nature, which has seen him support Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Jewish Care charity and become a key figure in the resurrection of the Hackney Empire theatre. He also participates in spin-off versions of The Apprentice for Comic Relief and Sport Relief.

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Sir Alan Sugar

The Biography

By Charlie Burden

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Charlie Burden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85782-908-2



With the dark shadow of the Second World War still cast over the planet, 1947 was still an eventful year. The future Queen of England, Princess Elizabeth, married the Duke of Edinburgh, a crashed UFO was found in the desert in Roswell, leading to decades of speculation among conspiracy theorists and alien obsessives, and the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine between Arabs and Jews, a move that resulted in the creation of the State of Israel. There were some notable births that year, too, including pop stars David Bowie and Elton John, as well as future US politicians Hillary Rodham Clinton and actor-cum-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And, on 24 March 1947, Sir Alan Michael Sugar was born in Hackney, east London, a man who was to become not just an immensely successful businessman, but also a television star, generous charity benefactor and all-out national treasure. It was a difficult birth and, in the end, he was delivered via caesarean section at the Hackney Hospital. He was the fourth child that Nathan and Fay's marriage produced, joining twins Derek and Daphne, and eldest sister Shirley in the clan. There had been shock in the Sugar household when it was discovered that Fay, then 38, was pregnant, as it had been a full 11 years since her previous child was born. After the Caesarean birth, Fay spent three weeks recovering in hospital, and she recalled that her newborn son was suitably bossy and noisy from the start.

One of London's most famous boroughs, Hackney was a strangely suitable surrounding for this future business giant's first steps in the world. A rough-and-ready yet charming and charismatic area, it is much like Sugar himself. Other celebrities to have been born in, or lived in, Hackney, include the star of the Carry On films and East Enders Barbara Windsor, actor Ray Winstone, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, footballer Ron Chopper Harris, and X Factor star Leona Lewis. It is fitting that the borough has such a star-studded alumni, as it also has many cultural attractions, including the Hackney Empire theatre, which Sugar has played a large part in supporting. He is now a patron of the plush, charming theatre. Built on Mare Street in Hackney in 1901, this Grade II listed building has played host to such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, W C Fields, Stan Laurel and Marie Lloyd. During his smash-hit television series The Apprentice, Sugar has regularly built tasks around the Hackney Empire, bringing both attention and funds to this national institution.

So what was the future tycoon like as a youngster? Sugar was reportedly a quiet child, his noisiness as a baby notwithstanding, and many recall him as a bit of a loner, which is perhaps unsurprising given the 11-year age gap between him and his nearest sibling. He must have in a sense felt like an only child, and his siblings may have seemed more like adults than contemporaries. He would attempt to tag along with his brother Derek's gang, but naturally the teenage Derek was not exactly overjoyed to have someone 12 years his junior cramping his style. In day-to-day life, it was normally his sister Daphne who paid him most attention.

It was Daphne who looked after him the most, too. In David Thomas's excellent book Alan Sugar – The Amstrad Story, there is an amusing tale about his first day at primary school. Sugar's sister Daphne took him along to school, and was shocked when he returned home at 11am. It seemed the youngster thought that morning play meant the school day had finished. Because he failed to pass the 11+ exam, Sugar was not eligible to enrol at a grammar school, and instead he went to the Joseph Priestley secondary. The school merged with another establishment soon after Alan enrolled, and the new institution was called Brooke House. There, he enjoyed a wonderfully varied educational experience. As he told David Thomas, 'I could still to this day build a brick wall if I had to. And I can still recite parts of Shakespeare. I can turn a lathe and read or draw a technical drawing. It was an amazing school.' He enjoyed studying science and engineering, and also took great pleasure from the classes in metalwork and technical drawing. Those who taught him back then were later to express surprise that he had made such a success of his life, as they found him in no way extraordinary during his childhood.

One of Sugar's earliest childhood memories is an unhappy one. As with a lot of people, some of his most vivid recollections of his earliest years revolve around a brush with illness that was to require medical attention. 'It's a bad memory,' he sighs. 'I was six and I was dumped in this cot in Hackney Hospital to have my adenoids out. I screamed and shouted, saying I should be in a proper bed, not a cot, 'cos I was six. I was still screaming when they put the mask over my face. Afterwards, my mother promised me I'd never have to go to hospital again. She conned me. A year later, I was in the same hospital, having my tonsils out.' In later years, Sugar has joked that he sometimes feels like a hypochondriac. Certainly, his appearances on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross always seem to contain a noteworthy level of medical chatter.

Sugar is proud of his Hackney heritage, and feels it has very much shaped who he is as both a person and a businessman. 'I can't help the way I am,' he states firmly. Indeed, he wonders, why he would want to. 'My East End background might have made me a little rough round the edges, but that's not something I can do anything about. It was good training for reality; it kept me down to earth and taught me to quickly appraise situations and assess propositions.'

Those who have worked alongside Sugar, and also those who have been his rivals down the years, will attest to his sharp brain, and ability to analyse matters very wisely and efficiently. Even as his level of fortune and fame has rocketed skywards, he has always kept it real. 'I suppose the most telling thing about me is that I've been married to the same woman for 30 years,' he said, a few years ago. 'That's unusual for someone as rich and successful as me. But that's because I've kept the same values I had when I lived in a council house. I've come across people who went to the same cockney school as me. And I see them 30 years on, and they talk as if they went to Eton. And I know these are the same ratbags I sat next to at school in Hackney.'

Indeed, because there is no getting away from the reality that Sugar's childhood was by no means an entirely comfortable one, certainly not in financial terms. For instance, his parents refused to buy him a copy of the Beano comic, reasoning that he would throw it away once he had read it, and therefore it would be a waste of money. This atmosphere must have been an early jolt to his entrepreneurial spirit. As he put it himself, 'If you wanted pocket money you had to get it yourself.' Perhaps it is the way he rose from relatively humble beginnings to become such a successful and wealthy entrepreneur that makes him justifiably impatient with the excuses that some people throw up when explaining their own lack of success. 'I fought my way out of poverty and I remain convinced that others can do likewise too,' he has said.

However, amid the poverty that he fought his way out of, there were also some advantages, and ones that belong very much to a bygone era, perhaps never to be repeated. Sugar recalls this era, and its positive points, with a tangible wistfulness. 'We lived in the council blocks and we did all the good things. You could play in the streets, playgrounds, build bikes and carts. You can't roam around in these terrible times we live in now.' This East End spirit is one that many of those who hark from that area in that era will attest to, and Sugar mourns its loss in modern Britain. Not that Sugar is in anyway blind in his love of the area he came from, and the people who lived there back then. He feels he differs from some people that have come from his background. For instance, when asked whether he would drive further to go to a petrol station where the fuel was a few pennies cheaper, he insisted he would not. 'No, no, no, no. Definitely not. And nor would I work out which is the cheapest mobile-phone operator and all that nonsense,' he snapped.

He went on to explain that he felt people from his neck of the woods – even the successful ones – often had this tight-fistedness. Not him, though. 'Those kinds of people wind me up terribly,' he roars. 'If they applied their ingenuity to their businesses, they would be making far more money than what they think they're saving. I couldn't give a monkey's. If I had to go to a foreign-exchange kiosk, I'd just walk up and say I want £200 in dollars – I wouldn't even look at the rate of exchange. But I've seen lots of other people from my sort of background who have become successful but there's still a stinginess about them, a stinginess that was needed when they were at their grass roots but they can't get it out of their system. I got it out of my system as soon as I could afford things.'

He has also spoken out tetchily about how he is still approached by people who claim they knew him in Hackney 'back in the day', but who he doesn't remember. As you can imagine, the straight-talking Sugar gives them short shrift. 'You can see them coming from the corner of your eye. He or she has been staring at you all night. No, not plucking up courage, these people are the worst, they are rude, they butt in, they have no common courtesy at all. They say something like "You know my uncle in Hackney." I say, "Oh, really?" "Yes, he says you know him very well." Then they rattle off a name. I say, "No, I don't know him, I've never heard of him." "Oh, but you do know him." "I don't know him, I'm sorry." "But you went to school with him, you must know him." Then I get a bit annoyed. Yes, sometimes I can be rude. I would probably say, "Well, I don't know him so clear off," or words to that effect.' This tendency would lead to a rather amusing episode concerning Rupert Murdoch later in his life.

Meanwhile, largely eschewing the after-school activities that were on offer at his various educational establishments, the young Alan Sugar preferred to head home and pursue some of his interests, pastimes and hobbies, which included photography and cooking. Both would soon be turned into more professional interests, and rather profitable ones at that. He began to make ginger beer at home, and sold it to his fellow pupils. This was done by feeding a ginger-beer plant each evening. He would then pour out the resulting drink and flog it to friends, undercutting the more expensive big-brand soft drinks such as Coke. He was following the example of his uncle, whom he describes as one of his earliest heroes. 'At the age of 17, my icon was my Uncle John, because he had a little corner shop in Victoria and was the only person I knew in business. As time goes by, you tend to overtake those people and look back in admiration. I've passed Uncle John, Harry the bloke who had the stall around the corner, Fred the chap who had the big electrical store, Bob the bloke who had the big warehouse and Frank the fellow big importer of electronics.'

It's not known whether Sugar believes in astrology, but those who do set store in that field would find much in him to back up their beliefs. Born under the Zodiac sign of Aries, which is suitably enough the Ram, he has gone on to display many of the associated traits: courage, initiative, stubbornness and straightforwardness are all said to be typical among Arians. Those born under this sign are also often said to be opinionated. Anyone who came up against him in The Apprentice boardroom in later years would go along with that. Some of these traits were apparent from an early age. He recalls himself as 'not a ruffian', but admits that, even as a child, with him there was 'always plenty of talk'. Could it be that some of that 'talk' was heard by his teachers when he was a schoolboy? Sugar attended the Brooke House School in Upper Clapton, Hackney. In a school report that was released to the media, one of the teachers who taught the young Alan Sugar, a Mr Robinson, gives an insight into what sort of pupil he was. He believes the teenage Sugar was 'an able boy' but he continues, 'He must take more care in the presentation of his work. A great improvement in his ability, but it is often misapplied. Alan is broadening his sphere of activities.' More interesting and revealing is the passage that covers Sugar's involvement in the sporting side of the curriculum. The teacher is full of praise for his pupil: 'A good year's work' from Sugar. He adds, 'Alan has represented the house in football and rugby. He has helped in the organisation of the teams. Well done, Alan.' Well done, indeed. And how fitting that a man who would go on to run a top-class English football club should have made such a great job in the organisation of football and rugby teams in his school days. If only he was similarly appreciated by the fans of that club.

Those school reports emerged in 1997, when Sugar returned to the school, which has since been renamed Hackney Community College, to launch its centre for construction, civil engineering and community education. It was an emotional and inspiring occasion for all. Sugar addressed more than 200 young people and talked to them about opportunities for starting their own businesses. A fun run also took place during the day, passing the old centres of the college, which housed the construction and engineering courses. Sugar, a charismatic speaker even before his Apprentice days, had the audience in the palm of his hand, as he told pupils that success requires 'hard work, focus and determination'. Naturally, the visit prompted headlines and Sugar's comments give an insight into how he looks back on his own childhood, and how he wants the best for the children of Hackney, where he took his first steps. He told reporters afterwards, 'I started out in business in Hackney as a kid and earned a living there as a kid, doing things that the youngsters of Hackney can do here today. I want to burn the spirit of entrepreneurship into them not to lecture them, but actually show them that business can be fun and that the rewards of hard work and common sense can be even more fun.'

After speaking to the reporters, Sugar also granted a then rare interview to BBC Radio 4's flagship Today programme. The sentiments he outlined there give an insight into how he sees the making of all entrepreneurs, including, of course, himself. 'You cannot make someone into an entrepreneur, just like you can't make someone a pop singer or an artist,' he said. 'It has to be in-built in you; it's a kind of a nose for things, a smell for things, and then an instinct to do it and a focus.' Interestingly, within years of his making these statements, reality television was indeed trying to 'make' pop stars and entrepreneurs right in front of our very eyes. However, Sugar's own slice of the reality television cake was about polishing, rather than making, businesspeople.

Let us return once more to his own childhood. Sugar insists that his love of business started at a very early age. 'I've been in business since I was a 12-year-old schoolkid, really,' he said. 'If there was an opportunity and a demand, I'd be there.' And, in common with all those who rise to the heights of entrepreneurial brilliance, Sugar found opportunities and demands wherever he looked, even back then. At the tender age of 11, he photographed other children and sold the resulting prints to their grandparents. As we've seen, he also made his own ginger beer and sold it to thirsty kids. Sugar went on to clean cars, a more traditional childhood enterprise but one that he went about with the trademark Sugar zeal. Later in life, rather than clean cars, he would be driven round in them, including an exclusive Rolls-Royce Phantom. Returning to the photographic sphere, he flogged repackaged black-and-white film and became something of a professional photographer. He would approach grandparents and offer to photograph their grandchildren for them. He would proudly present them with the finished black-and-white snaps, with 'Alan Sugar, photographer' neatly typed on the back. He had found a fertile ground for sales; offering to photograph grandchildren for half a crown, he found the grandparents' answer was always 'Yes, yes, yes.' They could never have enough pictures of their grandchildren.'

He was also a paperboy for a while, a job that allowed him to buy himself that copy of the Beano every week if that was what he wanted. By the time he reached the age of 12, the budding businessman would rise at the early hour of 6am to boil beetroot for the local greengrocer. 'It wasn't a case of deciding to do that: it was quite common for people who lived in my council block to have a Saturday job, a holiday job, a paper round or whatever,' he said, keen to play down the significance of the beetroot days. 'It was necessary – if you wanted your own pocket money you had to go and get it yourself.' Another job he took was at a local department store. There, his natural brilliance as a salesman came to the fore. He was so good at selling footwear to the customers that he was offered the chance to promote himself from a Saturday job to a full-time job. It wasn't just his employers who noted his salesman's tack. Sugar also was described by his headmaster as someone who could sell anything to anyone. He himself had fallen for the charms of the Sugar sales pitch when his pupil asked him if he'd lend him the money to buy a printing machine, so he could produce a school magazine. 'With your cheek, I will,' replied his headmaster.


Excerpted from Sir Alan Sugar by Charlie Burden. Copyright © 2009 Charlie Burden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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