Lord Sugar: “If someone is useless, I tell them!”

What happened when Today programme business expert Justin Rowlatt ventured into the tycoon's lair...

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I’m in what is, for me, uncharted territory. I’m swaying and rattling along the furthest reaches of the Central Line, way out where the London Underground isn’t under ground at all, but just another train. Late summer sunshine lights up the carriage as it stops in Debden, but I’m not feeling remotely sunny.

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I’ve been invited to interview Lord Alan Sugar. It is quite a privilege. As the current host of the business slot on Radio 4’s Today programme, I speak to a lot of business leaders and captains of industry, but Lord Sugar is in another league. The man who started off selling electrical goods from the back of a van and became a near billionaire is without question Britain’s best-known businessman.

“Let’s turn the tables on him,” suggested the Radio Times commissioning editor when she offered me the interview: “You give him a boardroom grilling.” It sounded like a good idea when she said it; it doesn’t feel so clever now. 

I’d naively imagined his on-screen persona was just that. The Apprentice plays up his gruff manner, styling him “Britain’s most belligerent boss”. But I’ve asked around and the word is that he’s a particularly tough interviewee. Apparently, he can be uncooperative, bad-tempered and generally, well, belligerent. 

I can’t help feel a bit like the contestants on the show do before their first encounter with the boss: I feel like an apprentice, a rookie reporter on his first assignment. 

His HQ – when I finally find it – is much less impressive than you might expect. Amsholdings, the company that controls his various business interests, is in a small but smart office building on a roundabout on a nondescript road.

Lord Sugar is waiting for me. He’s wearing a sharp suit and an expensive watch, but there is nothing flash about his manner; he isn’t interested in small talk, just like on the telly he wants to get down to business.

The only reason he’s agreed to give this interview is because of an important birthday. Not one of his. The milestone is the tenth anniversary of The Apprentice, the programme that made him a household name – and along the way has transformed Britain’s attitude towards business.

I bowl him an easy one to get things started: why does he think the show works so well?

He thinks it has tapped into the public’s deep curiosity about business, something television had failed to do before the programme. “Those old- fashioned business programmes with Sir John Harvery, what’s his name [Harvey-Jones], were boring,” he says. “We have created this interest in business. If you stop a young person, they’ll say they want to start up on their own. They’ll say they’re interested in commerce and understand it now.”

Lord Sugar may be confident, pleased with what he’s achieved and even a bit egotistical, but one thing he is not is boastful. The Apprentice contestants, on the other hand, are another story.

You probably remember the young man, hair slick with gel, who bragged glibly: “I’m a top salesman, everything I touch turns to sold.” Or the woman who parroted: “Don’t tell me the sky is the limit. I know there are footprints on the Moon.” “You can sleep when you are dead,” yawned one plummy wannabe, who, apart from being a contestant on The Apprentice, could claim without blushing: “When it comes to business I’m like a shark. I’m the top of the food chain.”

We all know where this kind of hubris is headed and that’s one of the (not so) guilty pleasures of watching The Apprentice. You get to see the contestants’ grossly inflated sense of themselves and their abilities come crashing up against reality. But isn’t it all a bit cruel?

“They’ve not just arrived from the planet Mars. They know what they are letting themselves in for,” he bristles. “They haven’t been banged up in some Siberian prison somewhere. I make it perfectly clear to them when I see them for the first time in the boardroom that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen – it is as simple as that.”

Yet the programme does sometimes seem to make a meal of the shortcomings of the candidates. It is the failures that really stick in the memory. 

There was the TV ad that didn’t have a single shot of the product, or the team of trainee bakers who took an order for 400 croissants and 1,000 bread rolls but only managed to bake 16. The restaurant manager’s face was a picture of suppressed fury at dawn the next day as he looked down at the sorry collection of bruised buns. 

My personal favourite is the man who blithely chose the culinary equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle. He decided English cheese was the ideal product to take on a sales excursion to France. It was not a success. “A triumph of hope over common sense,” judged Lord Sugar’s sidekick Nick Hewer, with an arch snigger.

But I get a real flash of the Lord Sugar you see in the boardroom when I suggest that not all the candidates he’s chosen have gone on to business success. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?” he says with real passion. “The last three candidates are in business with me and they’re doing very, very well. Some of the others worked for me for a couple of years and they’ve gone on to work in other things.”

He then goes on to reel off the names of the winners one by one, and seems to know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re getting on. Though he is clearly annoyed that some candidates like rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins (from series three) and last year’s runner-up and Celebrity Big Brother alumna Luisa Zissman seem more interested in publicity than in business.

“They’d go to the opening of an envelope if they got an invitation,” he says. “They have their Andy Warhol moment, thinking it’s going to make them famous, but very few have actually succeeded. Before long they’re of no interest to anybody,” he says dismissively.

He boils down what he is looking for in an apprentice to two key qualities: hard work and hunger for success. You can’t fault him on either. Sugar’s own story is interesting. It’s easy to forget just how successful his personal computer business was. At its peak in the late 80s Amstrad was worth £1.3 billion. He’s said that had he gone to America he could have built a business worth ten times that, but he chose not to. Was that a mistake? “Definitely not. I’m a family man. You can’t just uproot and go to America. I’m English and very proud to be English.” 

To prove his point, he tells me to look at a series of what I’d assumed were pictures on his wall. It turns out they’re cheques to the taxman. One, from 1989, is for £48,239,250.

“I could have sodded off to Monte Carlo or the Bahamas but we paid the money in cold blood,” he says. “You’ve got to pay tax, it is as simple as that. I don’t want to live a life dodging taxmen. I could have put my money in tax-avoidance schemes or hedge funds, but the only hedge fund I’ve ever invested in is a Black and Decker.”

He goes on to talk about how business is stifled by all the new regulations, the rules around health and safety and human resources, and that’s when I make my big mistake. I ask him whether this new, gentler culture is a problem for him because he is plain-speaking to the point of being bullying.

“You have to look at my history,” he says. “People would have reported it if lots of people were taking me to tribunals. Speak to my employees. I’ve got people here who have worked for me for 35 to 40 years. They work for me because they enjoy working for me.”

So is there a balance between plain-speaking and bullying? “We don’t bully people here and I’m not getting involved in discussing that with you,” comes his icy reply. “It is not bullying to speak your mind,” he continues. “I don’t flower my words. If someone is useless, I’ll tell them. If someone has done a good job, I’ll also tell them.”

Which is certainly true, but it can be pretty unpleasant to be told you are useless, I suggest.

That’s when he really loses it. “Identifying a truth is not bullying,” he says. “I’m really insulted by that. You’re picking up that crap from gutter journalists.”

And bizarrely, sitting there with Lord Sugar jabbing an angry finger in my direction, I realise that his famously short fuse is not the most frightening thing about Lord Sugar; it is the fact that he’s incredibly perceptive about people. It’s invariably Lord Sugar who brushes aside the contestant’s carefully crafted defences with a question that makes them stumble and flounder. It is he who gives them just enough rope to hang themselves and his insights that cut through the bluster to the cold hard truth.

“No one likes to be told a home truth,” acknowledges Lord Sugar as he begins to calm down. “Many times I tell them in a very nice way, actually. Just before they get fired, I explain to them that they’re not ready for this process but they should carry on what they are doing.”

There’s a pause, and he shoots me a wry smile. “There are others who both I and the audience are very annoyed with,” he says, “and who perhaps deserve a bit of bringing down to earth.”

During the decade The Apprentice has been on air, plain Sir Alan has been elevated to the House of Lords. His title, Baron Sugar, carries the whiff of ermine and cigar smoke, but I don’t think wealth and honours have changed him.

And that’s the secret of his small-screen success. Unlike most of the contestants on his show, he’s someone who never wanted to be a TV star. That’s a surprisingly rare quality in TV and it explains why he’s so damn good at it.

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The Apprentice returns to BBC1 tonight at 9.00pm