Has he seen a therapist? Does he have OCD? Or a secret yearning to study French poetry? Lord Sugar tells all<
f Alan Sugar, Lord Sugar, were a dog he would be a short-bodied, wire-haired dog. A terrier of some sort. A snarling, bristling, silver-coated terrier. This thought occurs to me as I watch him stride into the cavernous supply room where our photographer, Dan Burn-Forti, has set up his lights in front of an abandoned red leather chair.
“You’ve got seven minutes,” Sugar barks. He only ever poses for seven minutes; indeed, he once refused to sit for David Bailey because he wanted more than that. Dan knows the seven-minute rule already, having photographed him twice before.
He also knows that he must not ask Lord Sugar to point his finger at the camera, as he does when he says his catchphrase, “You’re fired!”, on The Apprentice, a new series of which is about to start on BBC One. This will only annoy his lordship, and given his reputation for being prickly, Dan knows that you really don’t want to annoy him.
The storeroom is on the third floor of Amshold Ltd, a large corrugated building on an industrial estate just beyond the M25 in Essex, the headquarters for Lord Sugar’s business empire, and it is full of the everyday supplies a company needs, from cleaning fluids and pens, to printer paper and lots of watercoolers.
There’s also a dusty old Amstrad computer from the Eighties, the product on which Sugar built his fortune (he is thought to be worth about £840 million, with most of his money these days coming from property). For my generation, your first computer was nearly always an Amstrad (mine was the 9512). Sugar had the simple, yet inspired, idea that if computers could be made affordable, everyone would want one.
The photographs over – seven minutes exactly – we repair to Sugar’s office. Light slants through a semi-shuttered window. His wooden desk forms the top of a giant T, the bottom being the long, granite desk at which his visitors sit, at an angle to him. Symmetrically arranged on the desk are two phones, two silver-shaded lamps, two glass in-trays, two model aeroplanes and two computers. Behind it, on the wall, are evenly-spaced family photographs. Sugar has been married to Ann for 43 years. One is tempted to describe her as the long-suffering Ann, but she has been quoted as saying that her husband is “softer” in reality than he appears in the media.
For his part, Sugar has said that he doesn’t know what she saw in him at first. He wasn’t exactly romantic, eventually proposing in a minivan on the Stratford flyover. They have three grown-up children. All were privately educated. Two of them work for his company.
The interview begins with a brusque: “Now what can I do for you?” The compulsive watch checking also begins, not a surreptitious, corner-of-the-eye check but a full-on, rude, I’ve-got-more-important-things-to-be-doing-right-now check.
While it’s possible that he only does this with me I suspect he does it with everyone, not least because he often describes himself as an impatient man. Restless. Easily bored.
Yet, in contradiction of this, he can’t bear disorder in his life. Everything has to be aligned, from the clams on his plate to the pictures on his wall. He is fanatical about cycling and perhaps there is something about the constant rhythm of peddling, the order it represents, that he finds therapeutic.
I suggest this because about 20 minutes into our conversation I notice him aligning the pens around his desk with his jotter. When I ask why he does this, whether it is evidence of obsessive compulsive disorder, he says in a deadpan voice: “Yeah, there’s a man with a white coat waiting outside. Partial insanity. I’m just going to move this pen over two millimetres.” He measures with a ruler. Nice self-mockery.
A psychotherapist would read much into this, I suggest. Has he ever been tempted to see one? “No, no, no. As a young man some friends of mine had some kind of visionary round their house to read what was going to happen to them and I happened to turn up and say it was a load of nonsense. And they said I should try it and the man said, ‘I can tell you have had a bad day today. You’ve had a big row with your boss and I can see it’. And I said, ‘I haven’t got a boss, I work for myself.’”
It’s an anecdote that tells us you don’t have to be a particularly talented “psychic” to guess as soon as Sugar walks through the door that he has had an argument with someone that day.
If he were to see a therapist, I suggest, he or she would want to explore why, when most people need to be liked, Alan Sugar doesn’t. In fact he seems to enjoy making enemies. (He joined Twitter last year and soon found himself embroiled in a war of words with Kirstie Allsopp, calling her “a lying cow” for saying he was “uncharitable”.) Why is that? “I don’t make enemies, it’s just I’m not afraid to speak my mind, which can sometimes mean people don’t like what I am saying. They become, in your terms, enemies.
“I tell it like it is, but I’ve got some employees who have worked for me for 25 years. I can’t be that bad if they stick around.The only people whose opinions I worry about are my wife, my children, and my employees. And as long as they still like me the rest of the world can,” he checks himself, “make its own mind up. I don’t go out of my way to schmooze people or make friends.”
So has he deliberately cultivated a television persona which is, well, what is it? “Dare I say it, the reason I think people like watching me is that I speak a lot of common sense. They know I’m not talking rubbish. There’s no complexity in what I’m saying on The Apprentice. It’s not highbrow, intellectual speak. It is obvious.”
The youngest of four children brought up in a council flat in Hackney, Sugar began his career selling lighters and car aerials from the back of a van. Clearly his is a story of determination, guts and a strong work ethic, but it is also one of single-mindedness and self-belief. Where did that come from, does he suppose? His parents?
“I don’t think so, they came from a completely different era. Very cautious and non-adventurous. Had a difficult life. My mother was a housewife. My father was a garment worker. What I did was totally alien to what my father would have done. So no.”
Did he worry about outshining his father? “No, no problem there at all. I’d broken the mould of working in a factory culture. You’re not a psychiatrist are you? Do you want me to get on the couch?”
If that would make him feel more comfortable. “Well can we get back to talking about The Apprentice.” It’s not a question. But I had a good run, and I’m surprised his patience took as long as it did to wear thin.
So. A new series of the Bafta-winning reality show begins next week and this time, instead of winning a £100,000 job in one of Sugar’s businesses, the winner will go into a 50/50 partnership with him. He will invest £250,000 in a start-up company of the winner’s choosing. Sixteen candidates, as usual. Twelve tasks. Cue Prokofiev music.
The firing stage. Does he ever get emotionally engaged? Feel moved?
“Yeah I do, especially on the penultimate programme because you have had people who have been working hard trying to impress you for 11 weeks and it gets difficult when you have to make a decision because they can’t all be winners. The firing tends to be soft landings towards the end because I don’t want to be suppressing someone who has tried their best but just wasn’t quite good enough.”
Before this interview his lordship was being interviewed by Evan Davis for Radio 4. Isn’t the new format a “leetle” bit like Dragon’s Den? “Yeah, well he seemed to think so, but as I told him, we’re the ones who keep winning the awards and he hasn’t won one yet.”
Sugar thinks there is an “expectancy culture” out there. Young people think they can come in at a high level, bypassing all the dirtying hands stage. “They look at the young fellow who invented Facebook and think they are going to find a venture capitalist who’s going to give them 10 million quid. But he was an anonomy. The guy that invented YouTube is an anonomy. The guy who invented Amazon is an anonomy.” I think he means anomaly, except that, having given three examples, they aren’t exactly anomalies.
“What they forget is that all these people were anonomies,” Sugar continues. “But when you look at the Sugars, the Bransons and the Greens, we started with nothing, at the bottom, and we learned from our mistakes and we hustled. We ducked and dived. What we want to demonstrate to the viewers is that you can still start with very little.
“I’ve given this latest mob £250 and they’ve turned it into £1,500. Did they need a bank loan? No. Did they need a big factory? No.”
And it shouldn’t matter in terms of starting up that we are in a recession? “No, that’s all rubbish. I’m sick and tired of hearing about the recession. It’s all c—. I started in 1967, one of the worst recessions in living memory. It’s all about being positive.”
Part of Sugar’s morbid appeal on television is that he is always trying to keep his anger in check, stop himself from swearing. In his autobiography, What You See Is What You Get (2010), he writes: “The niceties weren’t instilled in me by my mother and father. I was never taught any social graces, not even simple things like saying, ‘Hello, how are you?’”
In the book he also admits to feelings of guilt (towards his mother, with whom he didn’t spend enough time when she had depression towards the end of her life), of “gut-wrenching anguish” (during his 10-year period as the owner of Tottenham Hotspur) and to moments of self-doubt: “Am I a one-trick pony?”
Is this evidence of introspection, I wonder. Of an examined life? I try to steer him back to the personal stuff. Does talking about it make him feel uncomfortable? “No, it’s just this isn’t a profile about me.” Yes it is. “Well it’s all in my book. Read that. First two chapters.”
I like to hear things from the horse’s mouth, not that I’m comparing him to a horse. “Well people do say reading that book is like listening to me talking. I dictated it.”
Not only does he not write books, he doesn’t read them either. Or listen to music. The closest he comes to culture is watching a bit of television, Law & Order. And yet clearly, to have done as well in business as he has he must have, as he puts it, genius and brilliance.
Does he regret not having had a formal education, going to Oxbridge, perhaps? “I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. And I would perceive three years at university as a waste of time. I would have already made £200,000 by then. I’m a commercial person, not an academic.”
Those three years may be a waste of time financially but not in terms of his cerebral development, surely. He might have acquired a taste for French poetry, for example, which might have enriched his life in profound ways, giving him intellectual depth.
“Not really. The thing is, I’ve been in the university of life, you see, and you can say to these people who come out with their two-point-ones, or whatever, that’s fine but you know nothing. We’re going to put you into a practicable environment now where you begin to learn.”
Isn’t that rather patronising? I mean, he doesn’t know these people with their two-ones. And all the Nobel Prize winners this country has ever produced went to university.
He raises his voice. “All it is is a badge that shows they have a brain. That’s all it is. You’re not a dummkopf. But you are not an expert in economics. I’m sorry. You are not an expert in business. You are not an expert in electronics. When you become an expert is when you start rolling up your sleeves on the shop floor.”
Clearly he is a good judge of character, a quick judge, too. Is that down to his impatience? “I have instincts but I know better than to react to them straight away because that’s knee jerk. It’s bad, bad, bad practice to form an opinion of someone after only 20 minutes, unless they are being abusive.”
Does he have an instant prejudice against public-school types? He sighs. “Not really, but if you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth, it doesn’t mean that you have a brain in your head.
“If your parents can afford to send you to Eton that’s not your fault, but Eton isn’t going to make you brilliant. It can make you charming and polite, that’s good, but it doesn’t make you better than anyone else.”
What motivates him to carry on with his businesses? How much is enough? “I have got enough yes. Don’t need any more. But I like making it. That’s in my nature. It’s like a footballer likes scoring goals.”
What does he like about it? “It’s the buzz, isn’t it?
Creating something. Making something. Being successful. That is the buzz. Having a deal. It’s a buzz.”
And his motivation for carrying on with The Apprentice? “There is a certain amount of ego involved, to be fair. It is nice to be recognised, nice to be famous. But my main motive for doing it is to instil entrepreneurial skill and enterprise into young people.”
At the beginning of the show he lists what he doesn’t like. “I don’t like cheats. I don’t like schmoozers. I don’t like a— lickers.”
When I ask him now what he does like he says: “The first daffodils of spring, Shakespearean sonnets, walking barefoot in the sand.” No, of course he doesn’t. He’s all about the not liking.
Having talked about the folly of making instant judgments, I will now make some. After an hour or so in his company, I would say Lord Sugar is repetitive in conversation, intellectually complacent, distracted, and, yes, impatient. He is almost certainly an anal retentive and did I mention repetitive?
Like David Brent, he shouts you down, has no social skills or tact, and is boastful, though I do get that he is sending himself up when he says how brilliant he is.
I don’t share these conclusions with him, but I do ask if he ever slips into self-parody. “No, I’m pleased to say I’m not an actor. What you see is what you get. I’ve met you before haven’t I?” Nope. “Yeah, you’ve been here before.” Nope. “Yeah you have. It obviously wasn’t a memorable moment for you.”
And with that slightly bizarre exchange we part company, me blinking into the sunshine feeling slightly punch drunk, him barking like a terrier at some unfortunate on the phone.