Sir Alan Sugar: 'We aren't a bunch of tossers' - he might not be so nice about football and hacks

He's the face of a new reality TV show and he wants to help youngsters to succeed. But as Amstrad's boss admits to Tim Webb, age hasn't mellowed him

Talking to journalists is as demoralising as being chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. So says Sir Alan Sugar. And that's quite a statement. The founder and chairman of the consumer electronics group Amstrad - who started off selling car aerials out of a van in the East End of London - describes the controversial period when he ran the football club in the 1990s as a "waste of 10 years of my life". "I would have done better going down to Hackney Community Centre, and talking to young kids every Saturday for 10 years," says the self-made (almost) billionaire, who was vilified by fans for making a profit when he sold Spurs to its present owner, Enic.

Talking to journalists is as demoralising as being chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. So says Sir Alan Sugar. And that's quite a statement. The founder and chairman of the consumer electronics group Amstrad - who started off selling car aerials out of a van in the East End of London - describes the controversial period when he ran the football club in the 1990s as a "waste of 10 years of my life". "I would have done better going down to Hackney Community Centre, and talking to young kids every Saturday for 10 years," says the self-made (almost) billionaire, who was vilified by fans for making a profit when he sold Spurs to its present owner, Enic.

"In the 10 years I was in football, other than players and agents, I will go down in history as one of the only people who made any money."

Is talking to the press really that bad? "After 35 years of giving 20,000 interviews and looking at the result the next day in the newspaper, it is like working for Spurs," he explains. "It is demoralising. To sit here, you talk your heart out, you give them [journalists] all the info and they write something which bears no resemblance to what you discussed."

In case you haven't already twigged, other than not liking journalists or being chairman of Spurs, Sir Alan does not like wasting time. He is not afraid to say what he thinks, and admits this can land him in trouble. "People take a dislike or a liking to you. I am my worst enemy. I get impatient, people take it personally, so journalists end up going away with a bad feeling and they write a nasty article. So I shouldn't really do it, it's as simple as that."

Why then is he giving an interview to The Independent on Sunday? "Oh, they have asked me to do it," he replies, nodding to a huddle of television executives from the BBC. This week BBC2 will screen the first episode of its reality TV series The Apprentice, in which at the end of each show, Sir Alan says "You're fired" to the would-be entrepreneur who has failed that week's business-oriented task. The winner who's left at the end of the series - based on the US show of the same name, starring tycoon Donald Trump - will work for Sir Alan for a minimum of one year on a salary of £100,000".

In the programme, he comes over as a cross between Anne Robinson in The Weakest Link and Simon Cowell from Pop Idol, but he insists there is a serious point. "It does fit in with what I've been doing in the last few years, talking to young people about enterprise," he says, referring to the lectures he gives at universities and colleges as part of Chancellor Gordon Brown's National Enterprise Campaign. "Most other people assume I'm doing The Apprentice for sheer ego or money. That's not true ... er ... maybe a minor bit of ego," he corrects himself.

So does this spell a new career on the small screen? "I am not an actor. I was me. It was very easy. What you see is me," he explains. It is unlikely he could ever play anyone other than himself, as he is too literal or - dare one say it? - honest. Of the "You're fired" catchphrase, he says he uses it only because he is contractually obliged to by the programme makers. "If you think about it, it doesn't make sense," he points out, given that none of the contestants is actually employed by him.

Over the past five years, he has been thinking more about "giving something back to the community". "Someone who has done as well as I have has to give something back. You either do it the easy way through money, which is dead easy, or you do these tours talking to people."

Participating in The Apprentice has helped him to realise that he needs to get new blood into his business, says Sir Alan. "One has to think more about succession. It [the show] has opened my eyes to the changing way in which business is done and consummated. There's more of a committee-type discussion with customers. A new wave of people are need to play that game. I don't have the patience for it, but it's no good losing my temper as that's the way things are done."

The 57-year-old gives a withering look when asked if he is thinking about the "legacy" awaiting his successor when he relinquishes control of Amstrad and his other businesses. "I don't have a successor in mind. I'll be working until they put the coffin lid on. There's no way I can slow down, I just can't do it." His sons, who work for Amstrad and his property firm, may have to be patient.

Sir Alan denies that he is starting to mellow - "My patience is getting worse" - and he still has plenty to say on most subjects. On blue-chip companies and their role in the British economy: "There is a misconception at the moment that it is the BPs and Shells who are the backbone of this country. In fact, it's Fred who's got seven employees in the car workshop - they're the backbone and the big employers."

On the CBI's campaign, led by the organisation's director-general, Sir Digby Jones, to help business by reducing the amount of red tape: "It's a load of bollocks. Digby Jones is the classic example of 'Let's find something to moan about'."

On Amstrad: "I am still here. Names like Ferguson and Grundig aren't, but I am. Amstrad is respected by Sony, Panasonic, Philips. We aren't a bunch of tossers."

On the City: "My philosophy in being a public company is that when I have something to say, everyone hears about it at the same time. No one gets it on the quiet. That way it's fair and no one can line their own pockets."

On politics and his support for the Labour Party: "The biggest problem Labour has is its name. It's not really a Labour party. It has a chancellor drumming up business and enterprise."

Tony Blair need not worry, as Sir Alan says he has no plans for a new career in politics, which is a shame as he would certainly liven things up.

So is it possible for today's generation of young entrepreneurs to emulate his own rags-to-riches story? "If I was them now, I would still be successful when I [reached the age of] 58," he insists. "Anyone who says you can't do what I did, that's total nonsense. It's easier now."

So, there's no excuse: if Sir Alan can do it, so can you. Just be wary of football clubs, Sir Digby Jones, the City - and the press.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 24 March 1947.

Education: Brooke House School, London. Left aged 16.

Career (1968): founded Amstrad (Alan Michael Sugar TRADing), becoming chairman.

1997: computer company Viglen spun off from Amstrad. Sir Alan became chairman here as well.

1991-2001: chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. He retains a 13 per cent stake in the football club.

2000: knighted for services to industry.

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