On Wednesday, Sir Alan Sugar, multimillionaire, mentor and self-proclaimed enemy of “schmoozers, bullshitters [and] liars”, will put 16 new recruits through 12 weeks of “the job interview from hell” for the fourth series of the business reality television show The Apprentice. The show’s appeal to viewers may be obvious (Schadenfreude is the least of it) but the exact nature of its appeal to would-be apprentices – this year, more than 20,000 applied – is more mysterious.
Last year’s victor, Simon Ambrose, was winningly candid about his motivation. The 28-year-old Cambridge economics graduate confessed on camera that the Amstrad boss was his childhood hero – a rather unlikely choice of idol for a nicely spoken boy from Westminster School.
When we meet in Brentwood, Essex, at Amstrad’s drab 1980s concrete office block, Ambrose is wearing a large and boxy dark suit. At the time he applied to the show he was running two businesses (a sales and letting property business as well as renting lighting and equipment to theatres and schools): “I was making about £50k a year. Sir Alan’s businesses are multiples of what I was bringing in. I wanted to get experience of thinking big.”
Ambrose is relentlessly “grateful” to have won a £100,000 ($198,000) year-long contract to work at Sugar’s property company Amsprop Estates. He believes part of his appeal was that Sugar spotted a chance to nurture potential: making the final judgment, the old devil mused, “Do [I] want to be the headmaster again? Bloody old fool that I am, I’m going to take that risk.”
What does Ambrose actually do? “I work in the property team, I’m here to help out on surveying and management, to get experience of how they invest in new sites.” It’s a role Ambrose describes as “a bit like shadowing”: “[Sugar] involves me in most discussions, cc’s me in on e-mails he sends to agents, sellers and lawyers. I’m sitting in on a lot of things. I’m here to learn.” Then aware that this could sound a bit like being an “overpaid work experience boy”, Ambrose switches into turbocharged sales mode, telling me all about the website he’s built for the company. “It’s not just any website; it’s a tool. [Investors] can analyse the company’s properties at a click of a button.”
Ambrose, who gets off his train early to run 19 miles home to Clapham as part of his training for the London marathon, would like to stay beyond June, when his contract ends and the winner of the fourth series is due to start: “Sir Alan took a bold decision to invest time in me. I’m very grateful. I hope he will keep me.”
If all else fails, Ambrose believes his appearance on the show hasn’t ruined his chances of returning to the City (he started his career in equities sales at Credit Suisse): “If you approach something with humour, an attitude to succeed, people like you ... I don’t think my career prospects have been damaged by jumping up and down on a trampoline.”
James Max, who took part in the first series, says if he had known the prize was going to be a job with Sugar, he wouldn’t have bothered entering. I bump into Max, 37, in the reception of the Amstrad building on his way to interview Ambrose about the Amsprop website for the trade magazine Property Week. Max says the 2005 contestants were in the dark over what the prize would be: “The American series was the only thing I could base my decision on. Donald Trump can offer something really grand and interesting.” The programme caught his eye, says Max, because he was looking for a challenge, having worked first as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley and then for the private equity firm Doughty Hanson: “I had had enough. I wasn’t enjoying myself. And I wanted to enjoy myself again ... But a job with Sir Alan isn’t that interesting. [He] has made a lot of money but he can’t really offer that much that would excite me.” Max’s salary then was also significantly higher than the £100,000 salary that was on offer. Nonetheless, he had “great fun” on the show, relishing the opportunity to spend two months without responsibilities – “No money, no mobile phone, no friends, no family” – and being able to focus on the tasks, trying out new work situations (selling in the street, putting an advertisement together, braying like a donkey on a TV shopping channel). He says he wasn’t originally hankering for a life in the media but, after discovering he enjoyed appearing on television and radio, he has built up a new career – “a mixture of business and media” – presenting business shows on LBC radio as well as a series for Overseas Property TV.
I meet Lohit Kalburgi, 27, at a coffee bar in the City while he’s on a break from his job as programme manager at a telecoms company. He says he is sceptical when he hears former apprentices denying any ambitions for a media career. The New Zealand Indian, who made it to the 11th week of the last series before Sugar dismissed him for being too “nice” (Kalburgi flinches when I say the word), points out it would be a bit perverse to appear on a reality TV show if you did not want to be on television. He says that he has already been contacted by four of the contestants in the series starting next week, keen to find out how to get media contracts. Did he want to be a star? “Let’s just say I went in with my options open. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be on TV.” His even-featured good looks have led to him being snapped up for photo-spread features in Asiana and Asian Woman as well as the Pink Paper.
Overall, he considers The Apprentice experience a boost to his self-esteem. In 10 years he’d like to be “running a large organisation like Coke, IBM or Procter & Gamble”. They’re quite different sectors, I suggest. He shrugs, confident that he could take his pick, then pulls the chords on his grey hooded top, and goes back to his telecoms job.
There is no mistaking the message Ifti Chaudhri wants me to take home. The shaven-headed former policeman with razor tracks carved into his eyebrows, fired by Sugar in only the second week of last year’s series, spells it out: “I am an all-out businessman. I am a businessman!” The 37-year-old, dressed in a sharp black suit, shirt and tie, recounts a story of a recent trip to the US when he bumped into civil rights activist Jesse Jackson: “I told him, ‘I’ve got a place in London that does tiles, worktops, floorings.’” So far, the former US presidential candidate hasn’t turned up to Eclipse, Chaudhri’s tile shop in Ealing, west London. But Chaudhri, exuding bullish optimism, is hopeful.
Despite his early departure, which he blames on homesickness, Chaudhri plays up his Apprentice credentials. His tile shop is named after his team in the show; fellow competitors were invited to the shop’s launch last August to attract press interest; his business card lists his titles, first as “BBC Apprentice Finalist” and second as “Director Eclipse Tiles”; and on the wall of the shop is a signed photo of Nick Hewer, Sugar’s silver-haired henchman.
In a set-up not unlike an amiable version of The Apprentice’s boardroom, Chaudhri sits behind the shop’s large wooden table, flanked by his two employees, Kalpesh and Khalid, and explains his relatively modest motives for going on the show: to put his sales skills to the test and to win a £100,000 contract.
At first he worried people would think he was a “loser” or a “twat” for leaving the show so early. But, “People just saw me as a nice guy who put my family before business.” When he hands out leaflets in the shopping centre, people come up and chat, some ask for autographs (“I’ve probably given about 50 or 60. It’s embarrassing. I’m not famous”).
He’d already sold tiles to retailers but appearing on the show strengthened his resolve to set up his own shop. Participating in the TV competition made him more fearless. Jesse Jackson isn’t the only well-known person he’s tried flogging tiles to: “I met David Suchet, the actor who plays Poirot, in Sainsbury’s in Staines; he was doing his house up. I went to my car and came back with the details,” he beams proudly, straightening the Windsor knot on his black and white tie.
A year after leaving the programme, business is good, he says, indicating the car parked outside – a £40k black BMW hard-top convertible, with an unopened can of Red Bull in the cream leather drinks holder. He’s got one shop at the moment but he has plans: “By the end of this year it should be three.”
If there’s one thing he’s learnt about business from the programme it’s that if getting ahead means hurting someone else, he’s not interested. He detested what he saw as the ruthless character of the show: “All the candidates are horrible about people and then to their face they’re hugging and kissing them. It’s the young corporate environment, socialising with people and then backstabbing them at work.”
For Kristina Grimes, the slim, Irish, acrylic-taloned runner-up in the last series, the cut-throat atmosphere was the best bit: “When other people were stressed, getting run down, getting argumentative. [I found] that atmosphere works well for me.” She admits, however, that sharing a bedroom with three other people, with up to 50 production people running through the Notting Hill house they lived in for the two months the programme was filmed, “did [her] head in”.
Dressed in a fashionable tight skirt suit and pink camisole when we meet at the Excel exhibition centre in east London, Grimes says she left a secure sales job in a pharmaceuticals company because she believed the reality TV programme could provide a chance for her to display her business acumen. “I had a child when I was very young – there were certain jobs that I couldn’t take; now he’s at university [studying business] I felt I could really go for it,” she explains. “The Apprentice gave me that platform – in a rather spectacular way – to show off my skills. I wanted a huge career out of the programme.”
She concedes she was hoping for some kind of affirmation from Sugar, too: “I looked to him as a bit of a father figure. Twenty years ago I’d been told I’d ruined my life because I’d got pregnant. I wanted someone to say [publicly] that I’d done well and hadn’t ruined my life.” Still, she was surprised by how upset she was after she was beaten. Suddenly fearful she’ll look weak, Grimes says, “I didn’t cry or anything like that when [Sugar] told me.”
Did the programme enhance her employment chances? The 37-year-old had a rough ride afterwards: tabloid stories sought to compare her bedroom and boardroom skills; journalists camped outside the houses of friends and families in an attempt to discover the name of her son’s father. But within two weeks of leaving The Apprentice she had received, she says, hundreds of offers. Some were mad media proposals: “I’m huge in Ireland. They don’t have that many people to go on TV programmes there. I’ve been offered presenting programmes, Celebrity Eurovision, Celebrity Ice Skating.” She’s turned them all down and narrowed the business opportunities to just the serious ones: “Some wanted me to be the marketing face ... they weren’t interested in creating real jobs. Some wanted me to invest my own money...” She spurned Japanese bank Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and a job with Sugar “not because I was bitter but because I wanted to work for a young company, something a bit more innovative”.
Last year she accepted the post of investment sales director for Dandara, a Manchester-based property developer. While reluctant to disclose the amount, she says she’s earning more money now than before the programme.
She is cautious, though, about the show’s side effects. When we meet, she admits she thinks before giving out her business card in case of stalkers. She is wary of attention from potential customers: “People look at you not because they think you look good, not because they want to spend time in your company, but because they recognise you from the television ... Some people can be quite star-struck, others rude.”
Tre Azam, the bearded loudmouth from Loughton, turns out to be surprisingly polite and tells me he likes the attention from the public. Despite believing that he came across, in the programme, in his own words as “an arrogant shit” – his website has something of the same tone: “Although a superstar in my own rights, many of you will know me from the BBC hit show The Apprentice...” – the 28-year-old says he gets a good response from people in the street. “When people meet me they think I’m much nicer than they expected,” he laughs. “I found it weird that old grannies loved me. It was really nice. Young Asians, young white and young black kids came up to me and said they loved me. I never had a single bad comment from the public.” It has also led to his being invited to schools and colleges as a motivational speaker.
On the other hand, Azam thinks that being called a “fantasist” on television was not helpful for IDMM, the marketing and design consultancy he runs. Since the programme he has failed to pick up any new contracts but he is buoyant, hoping that projects he is working on – among them a security product for Hyundai and an interactive reality show for teenagers that deals with social problems – will pay off. Rory Laing appears less buoyant when we meet at a Shepherd’s Bush Starbucks to discuss the fallout from The Apprentice. The 29-year-old, who had previously employed Kate Middleton for £5.25 an hour as a waitress at his events and catering company, did not come over well on the television programme. Among his less appealing achievements on the show was the moment he told his team that “discipline” was something he went “f***ing crazy for”, before throwing his pencil across the table and issuing the Brentian instructions: “If you’re going to do brainstorming, can you take your jackets off?”, while remaining in his own just to show he was in charge. After Laing’s departure, he was savaged by the tabloids – the Mirror, for example, calling him “one of the most inept British losers ever to grace our television sets”. It is hard to reconcile the quietly spoken man sitting opposite me in a blue shirt and brown V-neck, complete with the regulation public schoolboy-hole under the armpit, with the image of the brash, Moët & Chandon cufflink-wearing character who appeared on the TV show. Laing confesses his “ego took a hit” after Sugar, a man he’d hoped would be his mentor, branded him a “disaster”, and says he can’t watch any of the programmes: “I find it really upsetting. It’s a complete destruction of me.” He says that he’d been accused on the programme of being bankrupt twice when, in fact, it was once.
He had hoped television exposure would be good for business, and reveals that he had previously applied to take part in the first series of Big Brother: “When it comes to selling things, it helps get people’s interest.” His businessman father was encouraging, too, suggesting that Sugar would be a good mentor for Laing.
After the show he received a few left-field offers, including an invitation to take part in a tourism video for the Isle of Man (he has no links to the island). But he was “pretty unemployable”, so he has been doing jobs on building sites, putting decking in people’s gardens. “People are surprised when I turn up at their houses.”
He says he is currently in talks with Zeppelin, the German company behind the Hindenburg, to bring an airship to cruise up and down the Thames with ticket-paying passengers inside. It is unfortunate that Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” is playing when he concedes that it is a bit of a bonkers idea. “People think I’m a bit nutty, really. But, if you saw an airship over London and knew it was put there by Rory, you would think it was pretty cool.”
‘The Apprentice’ begins on BBC One on Wednesday and runs for 12 weeks