Britain’s most famous businessman tells it straight: he doesn’t like shmoozers, or frummers, or Israel much for that matter. And as for critics of The Apprentice...
Sir Alan Sugar is not afraid to speak his mind. But the wannabe entrepreneurs on The Apprentice, his hit BBC business-based reality show, should not take his bluntness too personally. Sir Alan, 61, is just as forthright on many other matters — his Jewish beliefs, for instance , and how he plans to challenge critics, or what he calls “k’nacker commentators”, of the show.
In his first interview with a Jewish publication, Sir Alan, sitting behind his desk in his office in Brentwood, Essex, takes just a few minutes to confess: “I don’t go to shul at all. In fact, I can’t stand it. I find it boring. I am an atheist as far as I’m concerned. I don’t believe in God and all that stuff. I am a scientist and can explain most of what is written in the Bible.”
And as Israel approaches its 60th anniversary, the East End-born tycoon says he does not feel allegiance to the Jewish state. “I am English. I don’t have any loyalty to Israel. Obviously, I sympathise with them, and from time to time disagree with them.
“They have their own problems, but to be perfectly honest with you, I am English and England is my country. I am conscious of Israel, but I am not one of these paranoid people that are constantly worrying about the State of Israel. I am more worried about the state of the streets in England —– that my grandchildren will be able to walk around safely, as I did as a child.”
He does, however, consider himself “very strongly Jewish”, and expresses concern for the future of British Jewry. “There is a Jewish culture, whether you like it or not. There are Jews and there are non-Jews, and I do believe that it is important that the culture remains.”
So how would Sir Alan, one of the world’s most recognised entrepreneurs, ensure this happens? “I don’t think dragging children to shul and making them do something does it, really,” he responds. “I don’t think that has anything to do with the culture. If anything, it can be counter-productive.
“Culture comes from listening to your mother and father and understanding what it means to be a Jew. It doesn’t necessarily come from standing up for six hours every Saturday, or starving yourself on Yom Kippur, or observing every single thing. And I know this might fly in the face of a lot of readers, but that’s how I am, and I think everybody’s got to have their level.
“I look at my family and they all married Jewish people. It wasn’t because we were so religious. I look at some of these so-called pious people, who preach to others about their lesser observance of the tradition, and you look at their families, and some of their siblings didn’t marry Jewish people.
“It goes to prove that forcing people into shul is not really the way. Although, if they get comfort in it, good luck to them. I don’t like to turn anyone away from their comfort.”
Sir Alan has never been one to mince his words. And with an estimated fortune of £830 million — according to last weekend’s Sunday Times Rich List — he can afford to ruffle a few feathers. His next target is critics of The Apprentice.
Sir Alan is challenging them to take part in a special “k’nacker’s version” of the show. This is “something your [the JC’s] readers will like,” he confides. K’nacker derives from the Yiddish expression gantzeh k’nacker, meaning a big shot or know-it-all.
He says: “So many people sit in their armchairs at home saying what a bunch of idiots these people [Apprentice contestants] are, but nobody understands the pressure these people are under and how serious they take it. Of course, there are those that come on, thinking they are going to be movie stars, but I get rid of them pretty sharpish. A majority really believe they can do something.
“I would love to get a team of these k’nacker commentators and put them up against a team of former apprentices and see how well they would do at a very simple task. If I had a bet with Ladbrokes, my apprentices would win. I am going to put this to the BBC and see if they are interested in a k’nacker special.”
By now, the man known for his abrasive manner has loosened up. In fact, Sir Alan — dapper in a crisp white shirt and royal-blue tie, and noticeably trimmer than he appears on TV — is far less intimidating in person than his on-screen image would suggest.
In fact, he becomes positively twinkly when talking about next week’s episode of The Apprentice — a must-watch for every Jewish viewer, he says.
“I think it’s perhaps one of the best episodes ever. I believe this particular programme will become a cult programme. It brings a whole new meaning to the word kosher, and it is certainly going to be of interest to the Jewish population.”
In the episode, the remaining contestants are sent to Morocco to barter for goods in a Marrakesh souk. One of the items is a kosher chicken. “What unfolds is beyond belief,” says Sir Alan. “You cannot make it up.”
The Apprentice, now in its fourth series, shows no sign of losing its popularity. Last week’s episode was watched by eight million viewers. The programme has made Sir Alan probably the UK’s most recognisable businessman and may have contributed to his being asked to join Gordon Brown’s business advisory council. He rejects, though, any suggestion that his fame has won him more attention from the opposite sex. “I wouldn’t say that, no,” he insists. So, no women throwing themselves at him? “No, no, no, no, no, no, fortunately not, no. That’s not been one of the things.”
He contrasts the positive reaction he receives now to his former experience in a high-profile position, when he was the much-criticised chairman of Tottenham Hotspur football club. “It’s a difference of night and day. [As Spurs chairman] it was difficult sometimes to walk in the streets. You would get totally abused by thugs. In this case, it’s all compliments and that type of stuff.”
He is particularly proud of the show’s following among younger people, so much so that he is considering creating a version for teenagers, although he acknowledges that this might be difficult in practical terms. He attributes much of the show’s success to its authenticity. “The Apprentice is not a scripted thing. I am not an actor. What you see is how it is. Everybody knows exactly that that is me.”
He does, however, have at least one regret. It concerns his catchphrase, “I don’t like shmoozers”.
“It’s funny, I was the first one to use the word schmoozer, but now you hear it being used by lots of people. Everyone knows I can’t stand shmoozers.”
But as a result, people close to him are reluctant to compliment his performance on TV for fear of being deemed a schmoozer. “It’s kind of backfired in my face really. It happens here in the office — you come in the days after the programme and no-one says a word.”
He notes: “Sometimes the grandchildren let rip and say: ‘Oh, you did this, you did that’. They must get comments about it at school.”
Last year, Sir Alan, who donated £200,000 to Labour in 2001, publicly defended his friend Lord Levy in the midst of the cash-for-honours affair.
“I felt Michael was getting bad treatment. I detected he may be being used as a scapegoat and being hung out to dry. It needed someone to speak up for him a little bit and say: ‘Hang on a minute, what’s he actually done? He didn’t put any cash in his pocket’. His biggest problem was blind devotion to Tony Blair.”
But Sir Alan acknowledges that Lord Levy, whose autobiography is being published later this month, caused his own problems. “Michael loved the air of being involved with the government and it did go to his head a little bit. He is a very nice and charitable man, but he got a bit carried away with himself and perhaps his own self-importance. He enjoyed the elevation of being Lord Levy. While he never got any monetary gain from it, he enjoyed the association with the Prime Minister.
“At the end of the day, no-one really knows how far back his friendship went with Tony Blair. But one thing for sure is that politicians use people. They need people to raise money. They know that Jews have got money. They find someone who is excellent at raising money in the Jewish circle, such as Michael was.
“Believe me, there is the reciprocal Asian friend they had who did the same for them. Michael got himself into this trouble maybe by being a bit too over-enthusiastic. Fortunately, it all turned out to be nothing in the end.”
The youngest of four children, Sir Alan grew up in Hackney. “I was a post-war baby-boomer, I suppose. Or maybe a mistake, you never know,” he jokes, referring to the fact that he was born 12 years after his nearest sibling.
Most of his family worked in the clothing industry, but he was not tempted to follow. “As a child I was very mechanical, making bikes and collecting crystal-radio sets.” But it was when his parents bought him a tape recorder for his barmitzvah that he began to show a real flair for technology.
“I connected crystal sets to it and had radios blaring out in my bedroom in the flats where we lived. My father could never understand. ‘We never bought you a radio, how did that work?’ And I said: ‘Well, this little thing here’.”
At school, he was good at science. “But I was fortunate enough to not just be a boffin as I had this business instinct also.”
Leaving school at 16, his first job was working as a civil servant at the Ministry of Education. He then began selling car aerials out of a van he had bought for £100. When he was 21, he started his own company, Amstrad, an acronym of Alan Michael Sugar Trading. His first major breakthrough came when he found a way to produce stereo systems more cheaply than those used by competitors. He moved early into the home computer market. At one stage, Amstrad’s stock was valued at more than £1 billion.
In 2000, he was knighted for his services to business. He holds two honorary science doctorates. Last year, he sold Amstrad to Sky in a £125 million deal, leaving him as company chairman. With interests now focused on property — Amsprop, an investment firm owned by Sir Alan and controlled by his son Daniel — and Amsair Executive Aviation, Sir Alan is ranked 92nd in the Sunday Times Rich List.
But the wealth appears not to have gone to his head. He enjoys spending time with his family: his wife Ann — the couple are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this weekend — their three children and seven grandchildren. The second eldest is to be barmitzvah later this year.
He is a strong supporter of the community welfare charity Jewish Care. “I’ve funded a couple of buildings — I can’t remember what they were called — and I bought them Sinclair House or something.” He is a former chair of governors at King Solomon High School, Essex, and donates his fee for The Apprentice to Great Ormond Street Hospital.
He maintains his interest in Spurs, attending every home game, which, he says, is as frustrating as ever.
“But it’s quite positive. We are in Europe now. I think [chairman] Daniel Levy runs that place very well. I think it has one of the best balance sheets in the Premiership. It’s run as a business. If anything, Daniel Levy has continued this kind of conscious route of making sure that the thing is financially stable. We have seen the problems that clubs can get themselves into.”
Sir Alan’s extravagances extend to owning four planes, a Rolls-Royce with the AMS 1 numberplate and homes in Spain and America. Contrary to the image given by the impressive, state-of-the-art boardroom in The Apprentice, Sir Alan’s own office is unexpectedly modest, filled with family pictures and his framed business awards.
Has being Jewish shaped his business career at all? “I remember in my early days as a young businessman or even at school, going back over 45 years or so, there was a feeling among the non-Jews that Jews seemed to stick together and help themselves.
“To be perfectly blunt about it, yes, perhaps that is relatively true at low level, when you are a small-time business trader. But when it starts to get into bigger types of business, there is a different type of thing that kicks in sometimes, I think.
“Us Jews, bless us, tend to not necessarily be that helpful. Sometimes, I have found, surprisingly, resentment if not envy among other Jewish business people, when you get to a certain level. There is a more stand-offish type of feeling and I have experienced that quite a bit in the past where certain ‘super Jews’ come in contact with each other.” He refrains, however, from identifying those “super Jews”.
Although Sir Alan says he has never directly faced any antisemitism in business, he recalls a time when he was aged 18 and starting a business, “where there was resentment among non-Jewish traders. That we [Jews] were a bit too sharp, a bit too fancy-free and a bit too fly. But on the other hand, there is great respect from a majority non-Jewish traders that we dealt with, with the openness and the banter that went on. It’s better like that — to have a joke about it. That to me is quite fair open banter and you can give back as well as you got.
“I never found any resistance whatsoever. Fortunately, in the early 1980s, under the Thatcher regime, the attitude in the City became more open, not just to Jews but to anybody.”
Sir Alan prides himself on having a strong work ethic. “It’s wrong for young people to start immediately aspiring to be Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Sir Philip Green. They should aspire to those next up the pecking order. Some of the best lessons I ever learnt were from the two-man-band shopkeepers, who was very conscious of his costs and profit margins.” And he has more advice for aspiring tycoons. “Don’t get too sophisticated too soon,” he says. “Keep it simple. I hope young people understand there is no fast-track. You don’t leap out of bed one Monday morning and suddenly become a Bill Gates. These people — the Bransons, the Gateses, the Weinstocks [Lord Weinstock, the former head of GEC], all grafted. They knew what the grass-roots were.
“Your mentors become greater as you become greater. Unsung heroes in my history are small traders. So when I went to see a customer with a shop in Brick Lane [in London’s East End], he was God. He was the teacher and you would aspire to him. But then you would overtake him, and your aspirations become higher up the pecking order until you aspire to people like Lord Weinstock or Rupert Murdoch. It’s all relative.”
All traces of the famous brusque personality have by now disappeared. It is usual for him to conclude interviews with his trademark: “You’re fired”.
On this occasion, he ends the session by almost committing the sin of shmoozing. “Was that all right?” he asks. “Okey dokey. Jolly good.”
The Apprentice is on Wednesdays on BBC1 at 9pm