Alan Sugar: Sweet smell of success

He's a highly regarded, self-made businessman - and now, following the popularity of the BBC programme The Apprentice, he's become a reality-television star as well. So what's Alan Sugar's secret? James Brown met him
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The Independent Online

If you work in television, or just like watching it, and haven't been glued to The Apprentice, then I have just two words for you: you're fired. That's what Sir Alan Sugar barks at the end of every episode, and it's also what you should be if you don't heed the clamour and watch the programme before the series finishes on Wednesday.

If you work in television, or just like watching it, and haven't been glued to The Apprentice, then I have just two words for you: you're fired. That's what Sir Alan Sugar barks at the end of every episode, and it's also what you should be if you don't heed the clamour and watch the programme before the series finishes on Wednesday.

There is a feeling among reality-TV experts that The Apprentice may be the best programme of its genre ever shown on British television. It has all the trappings of core reality programming: a group of ordinary people who want something and are tested on television to get it. Then it has its honey-trap character, a magnetic personality who emerges during the series and stealthily gets you obsessed. This person, naturally, is Sugar: a rough-and-ready, straight-talking, self-made East End trader, manufacturer and landlord who has honed his instinct for a deal into a billion-dollar business. On top of this the programme-makers have shot London from the air in the style of Hollywood legends Michael Mann and David Fincher, and added a soundtrack that ratchets up the tension.

At a time when reality TV is increasingly a grotesque pantomime, The Apprentice leaves you intellectually stimulated at the end of each episode. You wonder whether you have the skills to become (as the apprentices hope to) a business executive, to play in a team, to make the correct decisions, successfully to sell the core values of the company. For business owners, it also serves as a management masterclass, because Sugar is brash and abrupt, but he rarely wastes a word on anything other than wisdom. And tellingly, beyond the caricature that is used to sell the programme, you also see glimpses of a more caring character. The Apprentice is Educational Entertainment, and it should become the imprint of a new television genre.

"Educational Entertainment?" Alan Sugar gives me that X-ray stare he inflicts on his potential apprentices. "That's right, that's what it is, you should tell the BBC that, because that's exactly what they want to hear." Sir Alan is sitting in his relatively modest office on the top floor of Brentwood House, Essex. "Why are we here, James, and what are we going to talk about?" To find out what you think about your programme being a hit and why I like it so much. "OK, let's do it."

Did he think it was going to be such a big hit? "Yes, I did actually. Not when they first asked me, but when I could see how it was going from the slices I was shown by the production crew. What you see is me, there's no acting, and the same goes for the apprentices. It has been an amazing experience, in that I've learnt about the world of television and how to make a TV programme. Hats off to the production team, because for every one of those episodes, there must have been 35 hours of film. They've had to watch it all and edit it down. The BBC have spent money on quality - then again, they'll be able to use those opening shots again in a second series. Would I do a second series? Yes."

Has he been enjoying the reaction? "I've been in business for 35 years and I've been written about in lots of newspaper articles. The business world is always balanced - if you're doing well they'll say that, if you're not, they'll point that out. In football you get nothing positive written about you. But I have never experienced coverage like this, where everything that's written has been so positive. Fantastic. Even at the Tottenham-Arsenal match, Arsenal fans are coming up and going, 'It's the best show on TV, Mr Sugar.' Arsenal fans! That's got to be a first."

When I arrived, I had assumed this quiet man in a striped shirt, sitting with his back to the door pecking away at a Viglen computer, was someone else - an employee. Surrounded by business certificates and framed fading cheques for multi-million pound sums made out to the taxman, this forceful, yacht-sailing, plane-flying business beast looks like Sid James with a beard. His manner is that of someone's stern but loveable granddad.

Before he ran Tottenham Hotspur, there was the Amstrad word processor, a machine that made wannabe journalists in the mid-Eighties better equipped than the papers they were pitching to. "You're not the first to point this out. A whole generation seems to have used them. It revolutionised the industry." Having established himself in computers, football and other assorted industries, will he be doing more TV? "I wouldn't do another programme unless it had a similar meaningful business message. If I have any criticism of the BBC, it is only that they picked a poor night by scheduling it on Wednesday, because it clashes with the Champions League. The first few weeks they were ecstatic, because they were attracting the elusive audience of 29-35-year-old boyos, the Yuppies, the upwardly mobile aspiring boyos. But then these guys also have Sky Plus, so I think we're losing a lot of the audience figures to people who are watching it an hour later, after the football. I can give you no better example than my own two sons. Last week they watched Chelsea-Arsenal first on Sky, and then their dad afterwards on Sky Plus. That's loyalty for you."

Of the various apprentices he's let go, are there any he feels like commenting on? "Miriam. It's very difficult to get everything right all the time. My judgement is mainly based on information I receive back in the boardroom. I'm not saying she would have been the winner, but I have to wonder whether I made a mistake with Miriam. She's a very smart cookie. I e-mailed her last week to tell her what I'm telling you now, and she appreciated it. I wasn't sure where she'd fit into the culture of the company. But she'll certainly be OK."

In terms of setting the pace for his business culture, Sir Alan is up at 6.30am, devours "the comics" but retains the FT for the drive into work. From the moment he's up, he admits, he's thinking about the day's business. How would a fly-on-the-wall show about Sir Alan differ from The Apprentice? "It would be very boring to watch. Just me sitting here at this computer, e-mailing people and talking in a forceful manner. Nothing special. I wouldn't be wining or dining royalty or anything."

For pleasure, he flies about three hours a week, and he has just bought an SR22 single-engine aircraft, which he refers to as "the Bentley of the Skies". "It's the bee's knees. The flight deck is even better than a Learjet's. I just get a buzz from controlling such an immaculate piece of machinery."

What's the best advice he's ever received? "I'm not being big-headed, but I can't tell you. I've just picked things up along the way. One of the things I realised early on was that if you are talking your heart out selling something, you might as well make it a big goal. If you are talking to one shop manager about buying one tape recorder, you are using the same energy as if you are trying to sell the same equipment to someone who can put it into 1,000 shops. So don't waste your time."

And the best advice that he has to give? "Take stock of what you're doing. Keep an eye on the profit - because people lose track of that. The costs can run away with themselves. There's no point making cakes that people love, and selling loads of them at £5 a cake, if they're costing you £7 to make."

And what would he make of Alan Sugar if he met himself at a party? "What a charming chap," he smiles. "I like him. No, I look in the mirror every morning ,and I know myself. In fact, I talk to myself in the shower. Don't you? I go back over what I should or shouldn't have said to somebody. I suppose it's a sign of insanity."

Watch the last part of The Apprentice. You'd be mad not to.

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