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The Apprentice A-Z
The Totally Unofficial Guide to the Hit TV Series
By Charlie Burden
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Charlie Burden
All rights reserved.
A is for ...
ALAN SUGAR (aka Lord Sugar, Sir Alan, Suralan, Sir A, Sir Sugar)
Belligerent, blunt and brilliant, Lord Sugar is more than just the public face or star of The Apprentice. He is the very personification of the dual themes of the series. Sugar's meteoric rise in the world of business, and estimated personal worth of £800 million, serve as inspirations to budding entrepreneurs. Simultaneously, his fearsome manner and merciless way of communicating remind them of the harsh realities of the industry they aspire to join. Without his unforgiving, clear-eyed and bristling presence, the programme would be an entirely different, inferior prospect. He is irreplaceable, as central and crucial to the show's appeal as is Simon Cowell to the X Factor.
Before he came to public attention through the show, Sugar had already spent 40 eventful years as a businessman, during which even media magnate Rupert Murdoch had been moved to describe him as 'probably Britain's greatest entrepreneur'. Sugar's journey to the top was inspiring and eventful. Born in 1947 by caesarean section, Alan Michael Sugar was the youngest of four children. With 11 years between him and his nearest sibling, he felt in many ways like an 'only child'. He grew up in Hackney, east London. The capital was recovering from the Second World War and these were tough times in a rough neighbourhood.
From an early age, he began to show the signs of enterprise that would see him rise. For instance, one of his key skills in business has been as a salesman. Even when he was a mere schoolboy, his headmaster took admiring note of the bright pupil's powers of persuasion. At the age of 12, as has become legendary, he was rising at the crack of dawn to boil beetroots for a local greengrocer. Then he launched an amateur photography business, snapping photos of people's families for money. He was a grafter while still in short trousers.
Through keen, hungry eyes, he continued to spot opportunities to make money and pursued them with energy and courage. By the time he left school, his income was higher than that of his father, a tailor. Indeed, Sugar's parents often viewed his enterprising ways with concern and fear. He was not to be held back. Once free from school he was able to widen his business ventures and he did so with focus and determination. He sold everything from cigarette lighters to car aerials. He launched his own electronics company, Amstrad, in the 1960s. He was just 21 years of age. The company name is inspired by his own name: it is an acronym of Alan Michael Sugar Trading. During the following decade it grew and grew, until in 1980 he floated it on the stock exchange. By this time Amstrad had become a force to be reckoned with in several sectors, including those of hi-fis and personal computers.
Already a success, he thrived and blossomed further during the entrepreneurial atmosphere of the 1980s. It was a decade made for people such as him. 'There's a new breed of person coming up – the likely lad,' said Sugar during the 1980s. 'You see it in the City and everywhere. It's no longer Mr Heathcote-Smythe's son who's getting the job.' There were few likelier lads than he in British business in those times: in 1987 his personal worth was in the region of £600 million. That year's stock-market crash hit his company hard for a while, but Amstrad and Sugar bounced back. The business world had changed for ever and Sugar was all the happier for the changes. 'The establishment was smashed, definitely,' he said. 'The old-school tie went out the window. Anybody can do anything now.'
The man that viewers see on The Apprentice is very much the same as the man people back then encountered in everyday business meetings. A business contact who sat in meetings between Sugar and the Dixons electronics chain said that they were often feisty summits. 'These were not meetings where you would want to talk unless you had to because you would get ripped apart – by your own side if not the other,' said the source. 'They were fighting over volume and percentage points for hours and hours.' These were every bit as fearsome as the boardroom showdowns of The Apprentice. The air would turn blue and desks were thumped. However, once the business of the day was concluded, hands would be shaken and laughter would be shared.
He is an undeniable British success story, but not everything Sugar has touched turned to gold. When he got involved in football in 1991, it turned out to be a rollercoaster ten years. He became the chairman of his favourite team, Tottenham Hotspur, but his experience of the beautiful game was bruising. He contributed a huge amount to the club, not least paying off over £20 million of debts to get it back on its feet. But he and Terry Venables endured a tumultuous relationship that ended up with the popular manager being sacked. 'I felt as though I'd killed Bambi,' said Sugar, accurately describing the extent of the wrath he faced from the fans after he told Venables: 'You're fired.'
His football reign also did nothing to give him a positive perception of professional footballer as a class. 'They're scum, total scum,' he said, with typical, to-the-point candour. 'They don't know what honesty or loyalty is. They're the biggest scum that walk on this planet and, if they weren't football players, most of them would be in prison, it's as simple as that.' He and Venables ended up embroiled in a court battle, during which the abuse Sugar faced from angry Spurs fans became all the more bitter and threatening. His family, too, were targeted and Sugar eventually decided to walk away from the game.
He has endured his fair share of high-profile embarrassments. In 2005 he predicted that the iPod would not be a lasting success. 'Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput,' he said. He then watched with surprise as Apple sold hundreds of millions of units of its famous MP3 player. He would have liked to have enjoyed a slice of that success when he launched his e-mailer product, a telephone that also allowed the user to send emails. It was launched to great fanfare, with the Mail On Sunday claiming it was 'the most important mass market electronic product since he kick-started Britain's personal computer market fifteen years ago'. Instead it proved an embarrassing and costly disaster, and one that is still to this day held against him by critics.
He has successfully branched into other business spheres, including IT, private-jet hire, property and screen advertising. He had appeared on television, on shows such as The Money Programme, before he was hired for The Apprentice in 2005. He had also gained public recognition during his football years. However, it was The Apprentice that truly made him a public face and a famous name. Rarely, though, has a celebrity had so many names. He went from Alan Sugar to Sir Alan and then the cheeky diminutive 'Suralan'. One of the production team that first hired him for the show always referred him to as simply 'Sir A'. No wonder people got confused by these many monikers. 'I do apologise, Sir Sugar,' said Phil Tufnell when he arrived late for a boardroom meeting in Sport Relief Does The Apprentice. 'Sir Alan,' replied Sugar sternly.
But is he really as moody and mean as he sometimes comes across onscreen? 'What you see is me, there's no acting, and the same goes for the apprentices,' he said during the first series run. However, he has since complained that the final cut of the show sometimes presents him as sterner than he really is. His personality is certainly key to the appeal of the series. The Independent newspaper accurately described him as 'its honey-trap character, a magnetic personality who emerges during the series and stealthily gets you obsessed'. His putdowns are pithy and memorable, his overall persona threatening and terrifying. When a candidate mourned a lack of fairness, Sugar gave her short shrift. 'Fair? The only fair you're gonna get is your bloody train fare home!' he said. To another candidate, he said: 'You seem to have gone from anchor to wanker.' This is not an arena for the sensitive or meek, as he once told the contestants: 'If you survive here, I promise you this: as sure as I've got a hole in my bloody arse, when it's down to two of you, people that are nice about you now ... will not be.'
Grumpy? You'd better believe it, but always entertainingly and with compassion. In fact, his no-nonsense way with words, quotable turns of phrase and willingness to play the 'baddie' he shows on The Apprentice has been a feature of his career for as long as anyone can remember. In April 1987 he gave a colourful and memorable lecture to business students at a London university, in which he gave a snappy description of what his firm was all about and where it stood in the business field. 'Pan Am takes good care of you,' he said. 'Marks & Spencer loves you. IBM says the customer is king. At Amstrad, we want your money!'
Niceties are usually at a minimum when Lord Sugar talks business, as even the great and the good of the stock market have learned. Asked what his company's P/E (price-to-earnings) ratio is, he replied as if he believed that 'P/E' meant physical education. 'Twenty press-ups every morning,' he said. When asked about a rival company he was suitably damning, describing it as 'like a lost lamb with a shopping basket'. These are not pre-rehearsed lines. His sayings roll off his tongue so naturally and effortlessly, it is as if he was born to be on television. However, he makes for a slightly uncomfortable media celebrity. For years, he was more than unhappy about giving interviews to the media. When he was eventually convinced to face a journalist, he was often tetchy during the chat. 'Is there a Sugar "brand"?' one journalist asked him. 'Yes, Tate & Lyle,' was his off-the-cuff reply.
When it came to the launch of The Apprentice, who else in the business world but Sugar could have carried off the role of the no-nonsense boss, ready to tear shreds off incompetent candidates, put the wind up everyone and then fearsomely point his finger at each week's sacrificial lamb and tell them: 'You're fired'? As one television executive said, if Richard Branson had been chosen, he wouldn't have been able to stop smiling, even as he was firing someone. Sir Phillip Green had been the BBC's first choice for the role, but he was too busy preparing a take-over of Marks & Spencer. Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary was also approached, but turned the offer down. Even the then BBC director general Greg Dyke was considered for a major role on the show.
But Sugar was a good choice, the natural person to turn to. Donald Trump, who anchors the original US version of The Apprentice, said he is delighted by Sugar's performances. 'He does a good job over there,' Trump told Seven magazine. 'I chose him with [Apprentice creator Mark Burnett]. We have tried this format in lots of countries with different entrepreneurs and Alan has done it best.' Sugar was not troubled by the fact he was not first choice for the show. As soon as he was approached he made it clear that he was keen to take part. 'I'm sure they knocked on all the usual suspects' doors before they got to me but, while some businessmen may be clever and bright, they can dry up in front of camera,' he said. 'I really think it opens a window into the business world, and that's why I do it. I know that top businessmen profess to think it's all a bit of a joke but, while they're sitting there calling the candidates a bunch of pricks, they're all glued to the programme.'
A good, balanced insight into Sugar's personality was offered by series-one winner Tim Campbell. He said, 'He's a tough man. Some people say he's a pussycat – he's not. You don't get to where he got by letting people walk over you. You don't see the other side of him on The Apprentice though; he's a family man, he can be incredibly funny and he's incredibly generous – he's practically built the Hackney Empire and he's supported Great Ormond Street very well. I've got a lot of respect for him.' So do The Apprentice fans, for whom he is the key ingredient of the 'glue' that keeps us all watching. The Apprentice would be unimaginable without him. Long may he reign.
Ever wondered how the Apprentice candidates get to be on the show? Around 10,000 people audition every year to take part in the series. The application process begins when they fill in the online form. The most impressive applicants are chosen to attend regional interview/auditions around the country. A flavour of these gatherings was served up by Mirror journalist Julie McCaffrey, who submitted herself to one such audition in Glasgow, so she could write about what goes on at them. McCaffrey wrote that she encountered some of the rudest people of her life, adding that at the auditions, 'the air is thick with smugness'. Competitiveness, too. For instance, when one of her fellow applicants was called to be interviewed while he was in the toilet, a rival thought nothing of pretending the temporarily absent applicant had given up and gone home.
When McCaffrey was interviewed by a member of the production team he asked her: 'What makes you think you could handle Sir Alan's dressing-downs?' Other questions included: 'Do you really think you can win?' and 'What's your strategy?' She managed to bluff her way through to the next round of the audition, where she was met with a fierce and fast round of questions. Among those thrown at her during her interrogation were: 'How would you cope if your group was given a deadline you knew was impossible to meet? What do you think of Sir Alan as a boss and a mentor? What's the last groundbreaking thing you did?'
For the third round she faced yet more questions, but this time from a panel. This time she was asked if she had a good sense of humour and then asked to prove it by telling a joke. She did so, but provoked precious little mirth. She was then quizzed on her knowledge of Amstrad and Lord Sugar's career, as well as facing more questions about her own business prowess. Then it was on for the 'screen test', in which she was asked more questions about herself but this time on camera. After returning home, she learned that she was not successful in securing a place on the programme, but at least she kept her journalistic cover long enough to see how the process works. When Richard Tyler attempted to research a similar story for the Daily Telegraph he was lambasted by 'an angry young woman' from the production team for his 'intrusion', and marched away from the proceedings in an exit as ignominious as that of any fired Apprentice candidate.
After the regional interviews, a shortlist of around 75 applicants is drawn up and the chosen ones are invited to a second round of scrutiny in London. Here, the selection process becomes all the tougher. The candidates are assessed in groups and asked to do various exercises to test their business acumen and to what extent they are team players. During this stage, the egos need to be set aside in favour of a team purpose, which proves a test too far for some. After these rounds the list is cut down to around 20 or 30 applicants. Those are assessed by a psychologist and asked for references, which are carefully checked. There are also checks for any criminal records, though occasionally some such details have been missed (see FRAUD). It is from this group that the final line-up for the programme is chosen.
Lord Sugar is keenly involved in the selection of the candidates for the show. 'I always look at the final CVs and scrutinise every one,' he said. As he later explained, it is important at this stage to filter out contestants who were applying out of a desire for television fame, rather than to learn about business and become the next Apprentice. 'It was new to me six years ago and we attracted a certain category but we are very conscious of that now and we want proper business people, although occasionally one slips through the net,' he said.
Excerpted from The Apprentice A-Z by Charlie Burden. Copyright © 2011 Charlie Burden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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