I guessed as much when a stripe-suited, rather fraught- looking PR consultant met me in the foyer of the company's HQ in Brentwood, heartland of nowhere, deep in anonymous Essex. 'It's a bit rough today,' said the PR. 'Things are, er, a bit hectic.'
I was shown into his large office with a long boardroom table. A bit untidy, papers strewn on his desk, an empty box marked Brother left on the floor. Someone had been testing out a rival fax machine. Some tall, glass- fronted book cases, all empty except for something called the Hong Kong Diary. Some Japanese souvenirs on a table, as if dumped there. A photo of a smiling Mr Sugar, most unusual, standing with Gazza and Lineker.
Behind his desk, some framed cheques, made out to the Inland Revenue. One dated 27-3-1989 was for pounds 48,231,250. In the Eighties, Amstrad was as rich as many a small country, selling goods worth pounds 625m a year, making pounds 160m in profit. Remember the Eighties? Ah, fair brings tears
to the eyes of even the toughest entrepreneur.
He strode in, glared at me, looked at some messages on a screen, picked up some papers, then strode out again. Stockier than in his photographs, beard just as aggressive, demeanour just as miserable.
' I can't believe my ------- eyes,' he was shouting at some legal adviser in a room farther down the corridor, loud enough to be heard all over Essex. 'What the ---- is going on? I'm not taking this ----. If that document does not ------- turn up, your job is on the ------- line, you ----.'
Eventually he came back, picked up more papers, tore out a fax that was coming through, glared at me again. The phone rang and he shouted at someone down the line for being an idiot, then hung up and glared at me again, indicating get on with it, cat stolen your tongue, I've got work to do.
Anyone who's been alive these last 10 years knows about his rise to fame, how he started in business aged 18, selling car aerials from the back of a van, moving on to hi-fis, then he transformed the age we live in with his computers and word processors. I owe him a debt myself, having written a million words on an Amstrad PCW 9512 these past five years. His greatest achievement was to make computers domestically acceptable. Amstrad joined Hoover as a household name.
I decided to avoid the Big Story, for the moment, fearing if I got any details wrong, I'd be out on my neck. Eh, those Japanese souvenirs, where do they come from? 'Japan,' he said. 'Anything else?'
I'm interested in your background. I know your father, Nathan, worked as a tailor in the sweat shops of Hackney, as did his father before him, but where did your great-grandfather come from? 'Dunno. From Poland, Russia, gawd knows.' Aren't you interested in your roots? 'Nah, why should I be?'
He has no idea where the name Sugar came from. Might have been Zagursky, who knows. All his childhood people made the same jokes. Such as? 'What a sweet name, are you a sugar lump?' He rasped them out, still refusing to find them funny. What's your earliest memory?
At last, he stopped fiddling with his papers and thought hard and cold. 'It's a bad memory. 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.'
While still at school, he did various odd jobs to make money, getting up at six in the morning to boil beetroot for a market stall, making lemonade and selling it to his friends. He then put an advert in Exchange & Mart, saying he had a telly to sell, price pounds 10. When people came to his house, he took them to his bedroom, giving the impression he had only one telly, a present, which he wished to sell. In fact, he'd bought 20, hidden away, reconditioned models at pounds 5 each, which he proceeded to sell. Wasn't that a bit immoral?
'What are you talking about? I wasn't saying they were new. There was no trick. All I did was give the impression I only had one. Nothing wrong with that.'
When he left school, he became a Civil Service clerk, which pleased his parents (my son, the white-collar worker), but he left after a year and soon started selling full time. When was the breakthrough, the deal that showed you could do more than just sell other people's stuff?
'Plastic tops for record players, in about 1970 - the thing you put over your turntable to keep the dust off. I noticed how expensive they were, for what they were, so I decided to find out how they were made. I'm a quick learner, when I want to be. I found out about injection moulding, how it was done, and got someone to make me a few thousand. Until then, I'd been buying stuff at pounds 1 each, and hustling to sell it at pounds 1.10. With the plastic tops, I became a producer, making something at four shillings, which I sold for a quid. I'd risen above being just a buyer and seller.'
From then on, his rise was a matter of scale, and a matter of increasingly complicated electronic equipment. All the same, as an 11-plus failure, with no scientific training, how did he understand his own products? 'I've no idea what's in a chip, but I know what they do, and where to get them made cheap. I still can't use any of our PCs, never have done, but can use a PCW for typing.
'One of my virtues has always been that I can get the experts, from the computer world or the City, to explain things to me in simple terms. I never felt inferior through my lack of knowledge. When I understand, I'm able to judge things quickly, come to a conclusion, and act straight away.'
Other virtues included a one-track mind, never being deflected, taking risks, selling products even before they were made, knowing what the public wanted. Until now.
And what about your faults? 'I do too much. I don't delegate. I don't trust people enough. I shout and scream and get very annoyed, especially when people wind me up.'
He glared at me again. Are you happy? 'No, I'm a miserable sod.' I have noticed that, in all your photographs.
'It's deliberate. A PR once told me never to smile for newspaper photographs. When your firm makes a loss, it will print your photo on the financial pages with you smiling.'
This brings us to today. Amstrad, for the first time in its history, has made a loss, a mega loss of pounds 70m. The decline is not sudden, however. For the past three years, the firm has been doing increasingly badly. Mr Sugar, bully for him, blames not the recession but himself.
'I built up a big company, I get a lot of the credit, entrepreneur of the Eighties, all that stuff, but now I have to be realistic and admit I can't replicate what I did in the past. I expanded too much abroad when I shouldn't have. We produced some bad products with technical faults. I haven't been able to find any new blockbusters. I thought I had with a simple camcorder selling at pounds 499 - but they didn't go and I've had to dump them at pounds 299.
In 1980, Mr Sugar went public, selling 25 per cent of the company's shares, thus realising some money. When the shares were at their peak, he was estimated to be worth pounds 600m, making him the 15th-wealthiest person in the UK.
The company, so he says, is now in real danger of continuing to lose money. His solution is very simple - he will buy it all back. He is offering 30p a share, which he says is handsome, but some shareholders, and there is a very noisy minority moaning in the financial pages, think this is too low. On 10 December, at an Extraordinary General Meeting, if 75 per cent of the shareholders accept his offer, the company will be his again.
That's a simplified version of a 50-page official letter that has gone out to shareholders. Now for some even simpler questions. Why should he want to buy a company that he says is doing so badly?
'It's partly a matter of ego. I want to be remembered for what I did, not for a company that went bust. Amstrad is Alan Sugar. Everyone knows that.' (It's from the initials of his full name, Alan Michael Sugar Trading).
So how can you save it? 'If I can take it out of the public area, I can shrink it, get it back to being a simple trading company.' Does that mean sackings? 'Any job losses will be in overseas factories that make for us. There will be very few job losses in the UK.'
Why not just jack it in? 'I could walk away, and do nothing, but the shareholders would then get nothing at all. I consider that would be immoral.
'I've got 200 million shares, about a third of the company, which I can't sell. No one else is bidding. If someone offered me 31p just for my shares, I wouldn't sell. If someone offered 31p for all the shares, then I would, I'd get out, feeling I hadn't dumped the shareholders. But nobody else is interested, so it's up to me to try to save the firm. I took the glory. I want to stop the failure.
'The last three years has been a bloody nightmare. It's been like banging my head against a wall. It was all my own fault. I built a monster. I should have pissed off years ago. After all, I don't need the money. I've got, I dunno, not counting what I have in Amstrad, about pounds 65m, plus my property company, and half of Spurs.'
Any paintings, collections? 'I've bought nuffink like that. I'm too stingy to waste my money.' He does have several expensive cars, a big house nearby in Chigwell and a house in Florida. He is married with three children, Simon, Daniel and Louise, all of whom work for him. Will he leave them his fortune, or does he believe they should start from nothing, as he did?
'I'll probably leave it to them. I dunno. I might go nuts and give it all away. Look, are you finished yet?'
Wouldn't it be nice to spend more time at home? 'Doing what? I don't want to play golf. I hate sitting on beaches. My pleasure is business. That's a third of my life. I spend another third sleeping. And another third, I dunno, how long's this going on for?'
You've done it once, I said. Even if you do it again, you're just repeating yourself. You're only 45. Why not do something else with your life? Even if you can't do nothing.
'You mean become a preacher or a rabbi? Take up skydiving? Look, what are you talking about?'
If the last three years have been such hell, it makes a nonsense of having accumulated all your millions. You're a victim, not a success. In fact, there seems something seriously defective in your personality . . .
For a moment, I thought he might hit me. 'You're telling me, are you? You know about me, do you? OK, then you're right, you're absolutely right. I've got work to do, OK.'
He then turned to his PR, who had been sitting most of the time at the end of the room, head in his hands, reading. 'And you can piss off as well. I've had enough of you today.'
As I left, I think I detected the slightest hint of a smile.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content