Sir Alan Sugar: You're hired

What is it about the grumpy, woolly-faced, middle-aged millionaire that makes him so attractive? Why would anyone want to endure a humilating reality show (catchphrase: 'You're fired') for a prize of working for him? Couldn't give a monkey's, as the great man would say - it makes compulsive television
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The Independent Online

With the catchphrase "You're fired" a grumpy, grey-haired middle-aged man, who operates from a nondescript building in deeply unexciting Brentwood, has made his third mark on the nation. One generation knew Sir Alan Sugar as the chief executive of Amstrad in the 1980s, when he was one of the no-nonsense entrepreneurs so beloved of Margaret Thatcher. The next knew him for his 10 years as chairman of Tottenham Hotspur FC, a less successful but equally public role.

With the catchphrase "You're fired" a grumpy, grey-haired middle-aged man, who operates from a nondescript building in deeply unexciting Brentwood, has made his third mark on the nation. One generation knew Sir Alan Sugar as the chief executive of Amstrad in the 1980s, when he was one of the no-nonsense entrepreneurs so beloved of Margaret Thatcher. The next knew him for his 10 years as chairman of Tottenham Hotspur FC, a less successful but equally public role.

Now another has come to recognise his leathery scowl from The Apprentice, the hit BBC2 series in which 14 candidates have battled for the honour of working for Sugar, and which is about to reach its climax. A salary of £100,000 was held out as the prize. For this the contestants had to risk a tongue-lashing from "Sir Alan" (as they were all, wisely, careful to address him) when he assessed how they performed in tasks he had set them. Worse was the certainty that one of their number would be the subject of Sugar's catchphrase at the end of each episode.

Filming has long finished, but a gripped viewing public must wait until Wednesday to see how the two finalists, Saira and Tim, will fare. Whether or not the victor finds the experience of labouring under the Amstrad boss for at least a year a genuine reward remains to be seen; for Sir Alan is not cast in the conventional mould of the captain of industry.

Sir Alan doesn't like the City. He doesn't like consultants - "no responsibility whatsoever apart from issuing a bill and an invoice" - or business qualifications such as MBAs - "they're all a lot of bollocks, quite frankly". He harms himself in interviews by going out of his way to be rude to journalists, losing his temper with one who recently made so bold as to ask him a question about his friends. (The encounter had already begun inauspiciously when the journalist asked why he liked flying. "To get away from people like you," was his response.) His speech is so ripe that even the preview clip on the BBC website for the last episode of The Apprentice has the warning, "Contains strong language" next to it.

His associates agree that he is far from the smooth school of management. "He's not cuddly," says Nick Hewer, one of his advisers on The Apprentice. "I've seen him being charming, but it's not an everyday thing. He can be pretty gruff with his friends, too. He can tear into you if you've made a mistake." His other main adviser, Margaret Mountford, calls him "a thoroughly decent bloke". "He will listen," she says, "on occasions."

Sugar's heroes are old-fashioned buccaneering types, above all the late head of GEC, Lord Weinstock, and in second place, Rupert Murdoch, "because of his gambling and big balls". Equally venerated in the Sugar pantheon are the small employers and the individual salesmen. "There is a misconception that it is the BPs and Shells who are the backbone of the country," he said recently. "In fact, it's Fred who's got seven employees in the car workshop." Another time he praised "the young fella who stands behind the fish counter at Waitrose. That's what the country needs".

What motivates him is designing new products - he always has his new phones, televisions and satellite dishes at his home in Chigwell - so long as they continue to be unique in their field. "I don't mind selling lots of boxes while no one else is," he says. "But the minute everyone else is, I'm out." He is adamant that wealth (his fortune stands at £700m) is not what drives him. "Money is not my god," he says.

Although his rough-diamond brand of instruction has gone down well with viewers of The Apprentice, and he does admit that satisfying "a minor bit of ego" led him to take part in the programme, neither is he bothered by the pursuit of popularity. "I don't give a monkey's what anyone else thinks," is his mantra. This is just as well, as during his tenure at Spurs he earned the enmity of the fans, who protested outside his house and even spat on him.

His abrasive image turns many off, which is to his detriment as it hides his philanthropic side (he gave his fee for the TV series to the Great Ormond Street Hospital) and distracts attention from the fact that his life story is in many ways an admirable one.

Born in 1947, Alan Michael Sugar grew up in a council flat in Hackney, the youngest of four children. His father worked in a garment factory, and money was scarce. As a child, Sugar rose early to boil beetroots for the local greengrocer. "If you wanted pocket money you had to get it yourself," he says. Leaving school at 16, he started selling car aerials out of a van in the East End, and by the time he was 21, when he married his wife, Ann, he had earned enough for a car and a house.

He has worked for himself since the age of 17, an issue that came up last week when he fired Paul, a property developer, from The Apprentice. Sugar could not understand why a successful businessman who had been his own boss would want to go back to being an underling again. Sugar did have a soft spot for Paul, though; he said that he made him think of himself at the same age. It wasn't an entirely flattering comparison, as Paul's cockiness and unwillingness to admit mistakes had led to many complaints from his peers on the show.

Sugar founded Amstrad in 1968, and is very proud of the countless products the company has come up with over the years. He regrets not keeping the early models, and is slightly touchy about suggestions that some of his products have been cheap and tacky. He prides himself on being in tune with what "the people" will want, although business analysts say it is ironic that more of his fortune is said to come from property speculation than from Amstrad and his computer firm, Viglen.

The 1990s was the decade that Sugar ran Spurs, and although he made a profit when he sold the club (he retains a 13 per cent stake), he fell out both with the fans and the manager, Terry Venables. He recently described that period as a "waste of 10 years of my life". Those involved in the club at the time are still vitriolic about him. "He used to stand in the boardroom looking out of the window with his back to everyone, not saying a word," says one. "The club went backwards during his reign because he knew nothing about football." No wonder he now says he would have "done better going down to Hackney Community Centre talking to young kids every Saturday for 10 years".

Admirers point to his work speaking to budding entrepreneurs at universities, and his support for the Prince's Trust. He has long been courted by politicians. He has dined with the last three prime ministers, as well as with the Queen (he says a corgi tried to relieve itself on his leg - and, unsurprisingly, thought better of it). But Sugar is a private man who prefers spending time with his wife and three children at his homes in Chigwell, Spain and Florida. Not for him the party scene. His extravagances extend to owning four planes (he is a keen pilot), a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley, but not to useless fripperies. Contrary to the image given by the icily impressive boardroom in The Apprentice, Sugar's own office is cluttered and drab, no more than functional.

Before the series started, Sugar claimed that anyone who knew him would say that he was being himself on screen. "What you see is what you get" would seem to have been the secret of The Apprentice's success - which, naturally, Sugar also predicted.

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