Alan Sugar: Let's get down to business

The Apprentice, fronted by Donald Trump, was a huge hit on US television. Now Alan Sugar is putting budding tycoons through their paces for a British version of the show. But will the public take to his relentlessly hard-nosed style?
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When Sir Alan Sugar smiles, it's rather like a shark baring its teeth. One can't quite tell whether the smile is genuine or not. Is he a rare and benevolent exception to a vicious species? Or is his expression a trick to lure the victim closer before he chews off a limb?

When Sir Alan Sugar smiles, it's rather like a shark baring its teeth. One can't quite tell whether the smile is genuine or not. Is he a rare and benevolent exception to a vicious species? Or is his expression a trick to lure the victim closer before he chews off a limb?

It's not clear to me as I sit opposite him at his corporate headquarters in Brentwood, Essex, but the country can decide next year when Sugar fronts a BBC television series, The Apprentice, in which the tycoon puts would-be moguls through their paces. At the end of each episode, one unfortunate will be summoned by Sugar and told: "You're fired." The final winner will go to work for the Amstrad boss on a six-figure salary.

The format has been tested in America with Donald Trump, and it won such huge ratings that T-shirts bearing the words "You're fired" have gone on sale. The hope is that this success will be repeated here.

When I meet Sugar, he is just about to start filming general shots of him in his Rolls-Royce (registration AMS 1, standing for Alan Michael Sugar), and at buildings from which he used to operate. The previous weekend he popped in to one of the selection meetings at which the show's participants are chosen. "They had 3,000 serious applicants," he says, "and they're seeing them all. I was impressed by the look of them - quite clean-cut ladies and men. No nutters, so to speak."

Sugar, 57, is best known now for his turbulent years as the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club from 1991 to 2001. Although he turned the club's finances around, he fell out with the manager, Terry Venables, and the fans rounded on him, protesting outside the house in Chigwell that he shares with Ann, his wife of more than 30 years. They even spat on him.

But he had achieved fame earlier, in the Eighties, when his Amstrad stereo systems and personal computers were to be found in every electrical retailer. A supporter of Margaret Thatcher, he was seen, with the likes of Clive Sinclair, as one of a new breed of entrepreneurs whose success was a welcome contrast to the decline in traditional British industries. But Amstrad never became a global player, which has perhaps led to Sugar being underestimated. He may not have the profile of a Philip Green or a Terence Conran, but rich-lists put his wealth at between £600m and £700m.

I tell him I'd heard that Trump personally approved him to front the British show. Sugar prickles at the suggestion that he might have to answer to anyone else. "I think that's a bit of Trump's fantasy world, really," he replies. "Trump's gone for it and most probably financed half of it, OK, and it's been sold abroad to the BBC. That's it. It's not like Trump's scrutinising it. In his little fantasy world he may have illusions of even grander grandeur, or believe that he has some control. He doesn't."

Isn't it a bit odd, I say, that Sugar's going to be famous for firing people, when he himself has never been in a position where anyone could say those dread words - "You're fired" - to him? He looks incredulous: "Say them to me?" Yes, I say; there's never been anyone who could have sacked him. "Well, that's right. I've always worked for myself, since the age of 17. But I don't see what point you're trying to make. I don't have any problem sacking people, 'cause I've employed people for the last 36 years. Sometimes it's terrible, at other times there's no worries at all."

Can he imagine what it's like to be sacked? "No, I couldn't, really." He ponders. "Mmm. I suppose I was fired from Tottenham, wasn't I, by the fans - 'You're fired,' or vilified, or whatever. You're right, I've never been fired. But there's lots of people who've worked for me who can put their hands on their hearts and say, 'I've never been fired.' I don't think there's a lot of people here who've been fired," he concludes, "other than by being made redundant." The distinction eludes me, but maybe that's why he's worth £700m and I'm not.

Sugar's an intriguing figure, a man who has never tried to smooth over his many rough edges. His accent has remained the same - he has no time for "social climbers" - and his speech, although fluent, is not bound by conventional syntax. He's proud that wealth is all that stands between him today and the boy who grew up in a council flat in Hackney, rising at 6am to boil beetroot for the greengrocer's. Deep lines traverse his face. It's the face of a toiler, of someone you wouldn't want to cross. In America, I say, Trump is known as "the Donald". Will he be called "the Alan"? "I don't think so, somehow," he replies. "They might be calling me 'the prick'."

Colourful language is another Sugar trait. Will the programme-makers ask him to tone it down? "They might do," he concedes, "but then, I'm not Gordon Ramsay. You may have noticed that you've been here 10 minutes and there's not been one expletive." I have noticed, I say, ignoring the "prick". What I don't voice is my impression that Sugar is making a strong effort to keep his Tourettic tongue in check, and that such restraint does not come naturally. "If someone deserves swearing at I will swear at them, it's as simple as that. I won't hold back. But you won't get me doing it just for the sake of it."

But, I suggest, when the cameras are rolling many people can't help playing up to them. "Look, look, look, look, look..." Sugar, who doesn't enjoy giving interviews, is getting fed up with my questions. "Let me put it this way. When in Rome you do as the Romans: you've heard that expression?" I nod. "I have had the pleasure, and the honour, of dining with all the prime ministers that this country has had for the past seven or eight years, and Her Majesty the Queen on a personal luncheon one-by-one basis. At the other end of the spectrum, I've been in the dressin' room of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club dealing with the managers in their language. They have a style. So when in Rome, you do as the Romans do it, and when in front of the prime minister one acts in the correct way. And certainly in front of Her Majesty the Queen, one acts in the correct way also, despite the fact that one of her corgis had come under the table and tried to piddle on my leg."

Sugar makes an effort, but the interview is clearly a bit of a waste of time as far as he's concerned. He cracks his knuckles, and sighs at some of my questions, many of which he seems to find pointless. But then, I'm not sure he sees the point of many pursuits outside business. There's something quite monomaniacal about him. Information not strictly relevant is discarded.

At one point he lists the prime ministers he's had dinner with. "Thatcher, erm..." He forgets Major's name (I prompt him), and when he reaches Blair he seems surprised that the fingers he's been counting PMs on number only three. So focused on business is he that he even waxes lyrical about the glories of selling fish. "The young fella who stands behind the fish counter at Waitrose is what the country needs," he says, in a voice filled with more excitement than a couple of trout on ice would seem to justify. But it's not about the fish, of course; it's the selling of the fish that gets him going.

Actually, what does keep a man who has made so much money going? "What motivates me is designing, inventing new products." One new venture is a corporate jet business for high-flyers willing to pay to bypass the queues at airports. Another is the e-m@iler telephone, an idea laughed at when Sugar proposed it, but which turned a £1m profit earlier this year. "They're doing good," he says. "And we've got another blockbuster product coming out."

Can he tell me what it is? "I can't really, because I'd be breaching all sorts of stock-exchange rules and all that bloody rubbish, so it's best I keep my mouth shut. It's a logical progression of what we've done so far. That's the old model" - he points at an e-mail phone on his desk - "this is the current model, and the other one you haven't seen." We misunderstand each other, me thinking that this "other one" is not in his office. "The other one you haven't seen," he repeats, with emphasis. I still don't get it. So he indicates, as to a slow child, another contraption that looks exactly like the others. "And... this... grey... one... over... here... you... haven't... seen."

Alan Sugar, it strikes me, is not a man overly given to introspection. The tale of a Hackney boy whose father was an East End tailor, who grew up in a household where money was in such short supply that his parents wouldn't buy him the Beano (on the grounds that it would have to be thrown away, and that was a waste of money), and who went on to achieve such success, sounds fascinating to me. But Sugar doesn't seem to think so. He doesn't seem to think about it at all. His brother and sisters were much older than him. Was he lonely as a child? "Mighta been," he shrugs, "but I don't look at it that way."

When I mention the lack of spare cash, he shrugs that off too. "That wasn't something one felt resentful about: that's how it was." I ask him why he took the job boiling beetroot, which to me sounds particularly menial and boring, but he's puzzled by my interest. "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. It was necessary - if you wanted your own pocket money you had to go and get it yourself." How many more of these tomfool questions, he seems to be thinking.

His approach to business, applicants for The Apprentice should note, is similarly down to earth. "I'm not going to be impressed by people with professional and academic qualifications," he says. "That don't mean nothing to me. All that is, in the business world, is a nonsense." What about MBAs? "They're all a lot of bollocks, quite frankly. That just tells me you're clever. If you want to be in business, then come along and we'll see if you've got any business acumen. It's as simple as that, really."

Sugar insists that he will be absolutely himself during filming. I think he'll need to play the game a little more if the British series is to do as well as the US version, but he's not having it. "I don't give a monkey's what anyone else thinks," he says.