Margareta Pagano: A recession made for Sir Alan Sugar

Tougher times bring out the pioneer in people

Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00

Phew. Thank goodness for that. Word that Sir Alan Sugar had gone soft on his Apprentices because of the credit crunch was apparently just PR spin put out for the launch yesterday of the new series which starts next week.

Happily for us, Sir Alan doesn't do spin or sensitive and I'm assured that he's as wonderfully grumpy and cussed as ever. That's why he's survived in business for more than 40 years and why he's still got wannabe-apprentices falling over themselves to be his new tycoons.

It's also just as well he's staying tough because the 15 new entrants he's choosing from sound pretty ruthless themselves. Here's how one chap, James McQuillan, describes himself: "I'm astute and shrewd and smart... maybe blunt at times," while estate agent Phillip Taylor, says: "Business is the new rock 'n' roll and I'm Elvis Presley."

I can't wait for Sir Alan to get his teeth into this young man; he's got just the sort of cocky bull-dogged spirit that Sir Alan likes to pull apart. But it's also exactly the sort of self-confidence that the Amstrad boss secretly admires and knows is essential if you're going to make it, whatever the financial climate.

Some of the UK's most successful tycoons – Sir Richard Branson, Sir Terence Conran, Sir Philip Green – are renowned for being as tough as old boots, people who never give up whatever the odds. Jacqueline Gold succeeded that way, as did the late Anita Roddick. Most of these people also started out young, like Sir Alan, often in their teens without many or any formal qualifications but degrees in self-belief instead.

It's why Sir Alan's hard-sell, brusque style is as suitable today as it was in the boom times. You could argue that it is even more vital because the risks are so much greater; would-be entrepreneurs can't afford to take no for an answer. I'm not suggesting that you have to be rude or unkind – or unable to say sorry – but you do have to have the skin of a rhino to persist in building your own company.

Tougher times seem to bring out the pioneer in people too. Some of the most successful businesses in the world were born out of recession. Bill Gates began Microsoft and Steve Jobs created Apple during the gloomy 1970s while emerged from the bursting internet bubble. Many new ventures are also started because the unlucky unemployed get lucky by acquiring the redundancy money to launch their own business. Harder times lay good foundations for good businesses too: costs are looked at in a much more careful way, and because it's harder to get credit, those who make it have built the business on cash rather than debt.

Apart from the obvious satisfaction of seeing people succeed, there's another side to Sir Alan's programme which I like and that's the way it has made being an apprentice fashionable again. There are now 130,000 companies taking on apprentices in the UK spanning 180 different careers across 80 different industries. To its credit, the Government is doing what it can to get even more apprentices on board. They may not all be paid £100,000 like whoever wins The Apprentice but it does provide people with skills – and then maybe their own business.

Margareta Pagano is business editor of The Independent On Sunday

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