October 22, 2010 11:06 pm

Go on, give us a smile

Lucy Kellaway attempts to coax a smile out of the gruff entrepreneur and television star as she talks to him about Amstrad’s demise and Americans
Lord Alan Sugar

What You See is What You Get, is the title of Lord Sugar’s autobiography, and what I see is an undistinguished, low-slung building in the wastelands of Essex outside which a Rolls-Royce with the number plate AMS1 is parked.

Inside I see a young blonde sitting idly at a desk in a deserted reception area leading to a large expanse of carpet on which a small number of desks is arranged. I look to see if any of the occupants are the apprentices from the telly, but they aren’t. Beyond is Lord Sugar’s office, and what I see there are photos of Lord Sugar, caricatures of Lord Sugar and trophies won by Lord Sugar. Standing at the desk is a man in a casual checked shirt tucked neatly into black moleskin jeans who turns an unsmiling face on me. What I then see is the familiar grizzled beard and frown marks that splay out diagonally like the sun’s rays across his forehead.

What I get is a curt nod. Lord Sugar installs himself behind his outsize glass desk and I sit, Apprentice-style, at one of many chairs on the large glass table in front of him. My task today is not to make and sell gourmet sausages or rebrand London zoo. It’s harder than that: I have to have an extended conversation with a man who boasts of his “charm bypass” and of having no small talk whatsoever.

In addition, I’ve set myself an even tougher task. I’ve always been keen on Alan Sugar. My first computer was an Amstrad bought in the mid-80s for £199 in the Tottenham Court Road. Since then, I have enjoyed watching Sir Alan and then Lord Sugar glower and grimace through 60 hours of TV in six series of The Apprentice. Today I am going to see if I can make him smile.

I have 45 minutes to accomplish this, but before I begin, he is already jabbing his index finger at me in his “you’re fired” sort of way. He’s pointing at my copy of his autobiography poking out of my bag.

“So you’ve got the book,” he says.

I tell him how much I enjoyed it and that it’s outselling the Blair book on Amazon.

No smile: his frown deepens. In my head I hear his voice-over from every episode of The Apprentice “I don’t like arse-lickers, schmoozers, bullshitters”.

So I cut the compliments and ask why he wrote it. He tells me that at every stage of his life people were clamouring for a book – when he was the City’s golden boy in the 1980s, when he was chairman of Tottenham Hotspur in the 1990s and now as the star of The Apprentice.

“But I couldn’t be bothered,” he says. “Anyway, finally, I get to the House of Lords, government adviser, and I think to myself, that’s it, it’s the end of the road, a great journey. So I set my mind to it and I think I want to write this story now, about the boy from Clapton who became Lord Sugar of Clapton, okay?”

As he speaks he looks at a giant plasma screen tuned to CNBC on the wall and fiddles with a silver paperweight. He’s making no effort to communicate with me, but maybe feels he doesn’t need to. There is something about the clipped cockney sentences and the air of grumpy menace: Lord Sugar knows that people listen anyway.

His autobiography has been written in the same way. It’s spoken into a tape-recorder, and having just read 600 pages of it I feel as if he has been talking to me for a very long time. I tell him that I now know much more about his childhood and career than I know about my own. Again, no smile.

“I’ve just got an exceptional memory, if I say so myself … I can see things as clear as crystal. But I’ve got to tell you, I can’t remember your name...” And then he says: Lucy!

Lest I conclude he has stored this unnecessary information in his head, he quickly assures me that he read it off a piece of paper under his nose.

. . .

Lord Sugar was the third son of a poor Jewish tailor who was so taciturn that his son seems garrulous by comparison. Was it hurtful, I ask, to have his early success at turning beetroot and firewood into cash rewarded by a mere grunt from his father? Lord Sugar gives an exasperated sigh.

“Nah, not at all ... It’s just that that’s the way they were. That was the era they lived in, a very sad, quiet, miserable era.”

Later, when he gave his father a job, he found himself much annoyed by the old man’s aversion to waste. There’s a funny bit in the book when Sugar Jr gets so cross at the way his father endlessly turns off the radiator in his office that he puts the heater on the windowsill, turns it on and locks the door, leaving his father wringing his hands outside. I say it’s comic, but also a bit mean.

“Nah,” he says again. “You weren’t there. He deserved it because the amount of times I told him that we’re now a big commercial organisation and this mentality of yours needs to go NOW. So there was no bullying whatsoever, I can assure you. It was a lesson that had to be learnt.”

But bullying is something Lord Sugar is often accused of and when I ask him about it he says that a) it’s something got up by the media, and b) if you want to know what he’s really like ask the people who have worked with him for donkey’s years.

So after the interview I call his PA and ask what she thinks.

“He’s not a bully” she declares. “He’s a very polite and pleasant man to work for.”

She had to say that, but she managed to say it with feeling. Her boss inspires great loyalty and is fiercely loyal in return. There is a good side there, if only I could find it. More visible is the dark side, the intolerance and animosity. He falls out with people and has been voicing his disdain for posh tossers, estate agents, stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers and Oxbridge journalists for decades. But in the book a new group gets it in the neck – Americans.

Did he really mean to dismiss them all as “insincere and full of shit”?

For a second I think I’m getting a Lord Sugar first – a dull, safe answer of the sort that most other business people give at all times.

“I want to be fair to Americans,” he begins. But then he says that his view holds of the Americans he knows in New York and Florida (where he has a house) and in Los Angeles, where “some people are quite good on the bullshit Richter scale.”

I say it’s strange for a self-made man to be so disparaging about the greatest entrepreneurial country on earth.

“In America, everybody thinks they’re an entrepreneur. That’s the problem. It’s not a title that anybody should call oneself.”

I’ve heard him say this on TV and I read it in the book. It’s evidently something of a hobby horse, but I don’t get it.

“It’s like someone saying: I’m handsome,” he explains.

But surely there is no judgment of value in it at all? It simply refers to someone who organises a business venture and assumes the risk for it.

Sugar swivels crossly on his chair. “You and I disagree on that,” he snaps. “Next question.”

And so I ask about his job advising Gordon Brown – a man equally challenged in the small talk department – to advise on small businesses. Was he sad to lose the job when Labour lost the election?

“Put it this way, I’m not devastated.”

The new government, is a “shambles”, he says. “You’ve got Clegg and Cable who, to me, are a pair of clowns who never expected to have the power they’ve got at the moment. I don’t think it’ll last.”

The government, evidently, is fired.

. . .

By now, I’ve pretty much given up on the smile, and so I ask about the fall of Amstrad. At the time I went on my pilgrimage to the Tottenham Court Road Sugar’s company was worth more than £1bn and had a quarter of the European computer market. Twenty years later it was flogged to Rupert Murdoch for a tenth of that value. What went wrong?

Instead of getting even crosser, Sugar lays into himself with relish. He didn’t attend to engineering. Or the technical side. Or to financial controls. He could only do one thing. And he made the classic entrepreneurial mistake of not surrounding himself with enough bright people.

“It was a horrible, terrible time,” he says.

Did he doubt whether he was really any good, and wonder if the earlier success had been a fluke? Lord Sugar gazes out through the Venetian blinds at the sunny, Essex afternoon.

“Possibly,” he says.

And I think too about the quiet outside his door and the lack of buzz, and wonder if he has lost his appetite for selling, doing deals and making more money. These days he seems to enjoy spending a little time with his long-suffering wife Ann.

“I’m always open, 24-7, so you shouldn’t underestimate how much I’m involved,” he says.

His new business involves putting screens into the few remaining places on earth that are free of advertising messages – GP surgeries and petrol stations. “We’re investing lots of money in this thing and if the advertising revenue really starts kicking in, it will become very successful and tremendously valuable.”

One of his sons is involved in this, the other in his property company and I want to know if their drive is anything like their father’s.

“You’re frustrating me here by asking questions you already know the answer to. You really are.”

I protest that I don’t know the answer and he snaps: “They can’t help being my sons so they’re never going to be the same as me, but they do work hard and do their best. That’s all they can do.”

It’s not going well. Lord Sugar doesn’t want me here, and I have stopped wanting to be here too. In desperation, I tell him that I’ve just watched some of the American version of The Apprentice, and that he’s miles better than Donald Trump, who is wooden by comparison.

Needless to say, he doesn’t smile. But neither does he look surprised. In his book Lord Sugar tells just how many women in their forties and fifties like the show, a view not generally shared by their husbands, or by business people in general.

“You will never find a well-known businessman compliment me on that programme. It’s just human nature.”

Are they jealous?

“I’m not saying that word, but…”

He tails off. But I bet in a way they are jealous of Sugar. Not because of his money or the title, but because he operates with no constraints – imposed by shareholders, PR advisers or even by manners – on what he says or does.

Indeed it seems to me that the most successful product ever launched by Alan Sugar is Alan Sugar himself. The thing he will be remembered for is not introducing three million people to cheap hi-fi or personal computers – others came along behind him and did it better. His main contribution was introducing millions to Alan Sugar, a product for which there will be no imitators. This brand is unique.

I put this point to him. He glares and frowns.

“I don’t know what you are asking.”

But I think he does know, even if he doesn’t admit it. In the final chapter of the book he concludes: “At the end of the day, like it or not, I’m Alan Sugar”.

At the end of the day – or rather at the end of the 45 minutes – I like it – or rather him – less than I did at the outset. I also like myself less for failing so completely at my task of coaxing out even the thinnest glimmer of a smile.

As I get up to go, I find myself asking if he views himself as more nice than nasty?

And then – hallelujah – the corners of his mouth start to twitch upwards. Lord Sugar is smiling. My eyes are fixed on his face, but what I see is not a smile. It is a grimace at the utter stupidity of the question.

“You’re going now,” he orders.

Lord Sugar stands and shouts out to the photographer that he’s only got two minutes. I follow him into a large empty room next door where his picture is to be taken.

“Are you coming in?” he asks me.

No, I say. I just wanted to say goodbye.

“Oh!” he says, as if this were a most eccentric idea. And then, gruffly: “Goodbye.”

lucy.kellaway@ft.com

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