Meeting the rookies
There’s no such thing as a typical week in my life. With the sophisticated IT systems that we have available, I’m able to operate from any location, whether that’s at home, in the office or at either of my houses in America and Spain. This allows me to take on far more activities than I could in the old days of turning up to the office at nine in the morning and being there until six o’clock at night. Most of the time nowadays communication with my staff and people is done by email.
Today I leave my house in Chigwell at 5.30am to be driven to The Apprentice boardroom, where I’m going to meet for the first time the 16 candidates who will be taking part in this gruelling, 12-week contest. I’ve been given their CVs, but I’ve never met them before and they’ve never met me.
When I arrive, I meet up with Nick and Margaret and the production people and go through all the normal bits and pieces, such as make-up and general preparation. I don’t get nervous at all. This is the fifth series of The Apprentice and I’m an old hand at it. On the other hand, I should imagine that the apprentices are feeling very nervous.
In my mind I’ve compiled an introductory address to them, which is very businesslike and tough but at the same time not over the top or frightening. I also have to bear in mind that there’s no point in me repeating things I’ve already said to previous apprentices, on the basis that anybody with half a brain will already have seen it all before.
On this particular occasion, when everyone is finally assembled in the boardroom, I come up with some new gems of wisdom that catch them a bit off guard. Then I set the first task and send them on their merry way. The task has to be conducted in the course of a single day, so I leave them with the parting comment that I want them back in the boardroom at seven o’clock this evening.
It’s now 8am and, after a few niceties with Nick and Margaret, I move off into town to meet one of my sons, Daniel, who works in Amsprop, my property organisation. We’re viewing two or three potential real estate sites to investigate the possibility of purchasing them. The current market is vulnerable, with no one knowing what is happening. As a cash-rich organisation, we feel comfortably placed to be able to pick up bargains. Things that were going on in the last few years did not make any commercial sense whatsoever. During that period we were unable to trade in the marketplace because mad prices were going around for real estate thanks to the easy availability of finance to any Tom, Dick and Harry who could come along and falsely inflate prices.
Needless to say, at our meetings today we’re presented with propositions from people still trying to bluff that they don’t need to sell, whereas deep down we know they do.
I get the driver to take me back home, where I pick up all my emails and hang around until five o’clock, when I set out again to the boardroom to meet the apprentices and hear what has gone on. During the course of the day I’ve been in constant contact with Nick and Margaret, who have been giving me progress reports on what has been happening. Having said that, it never fails to amaze me that despite getting this information through the day, when the actual numbers are analysed, prior to meeting the apprentices, things can often take a dramatic turn.
I enter the boardroom at seven o’clock. One of the things people don’t understand is that the only information I have about what has gone on during the course of the day is given to me by Nick and Margaret, because there’s no time to show me any film of what’s happened. So I’m doing it blind.
I have to work on the information I have and also by stimulating a debate among the apprentices. A picture emerges of what actually went on. Having said that, at the end of the day the numbers talk and one team wins and another team loses. I then have to decide which person in the team that lost is culpable and dispose of them by firing them. I don’t feel any regret when I do it. The people who come into the contest know that they stand a chance of being fired because they put themselves forward. I back my judgement and I don’t feel any guilt whatsoever.
We finish at 11 o’clock at night and then I go home.
Hands on approach
I’m up at 6am to be driven to a new location where I’ll be meeting the apprentices to set the next task. I design the tasks together with the production team and this is one that will take a few days to execute, so I won’t be seeing them again until Friday. In the meantime, as usual, I’ll be in constant contact with Nick and Margaret, working out what’s going on.
After I’ve set the task I make my way to my office at Viglen, another of my companies, which is involved in supplying computers to schools and universities. The managing director and finance director need to bring me up to date with the current trading situation. I have to keep track of what is going on as far as the supply chain is concerned as well as monitoring any changes in technology to make sure we’re offering the latest kit. I like to keep up to date with the technical people regarding the latest gizmos that we need to put on our products and to monitor the potential tenders that we’re going in for. Then there’s production and how that’s going and obviously there’s sales. I spend the whole day there discussing all this.
I’m very hands on. I’m a detail person, so I like to know the ins and outs of everything and I can tell you where every screw and nut and bolt is in all the companies.
I’m off to Victoria Street to meet Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and his merry team. Gordon Brown asked him to contact me to see whether I’d be prepared to spearhead a television advertising campaign to promote apprenticeships amongst young people.
The first thing I do on meeting him is enter into a tirade of abuse, telling him how the department is totally useless and unfair in respect of purchasing equipment for schools and universities. Their tendering process is archaic and it tends to support foreign companies such as big American giants and no consideration is given to supporting British manufacturers such as Viglen. It’s like talking to a brick wall. The government do things in their way and you’re not going to change it.
After my tirade they go on sheepishly to suggest that I head up this advertising campaign. Because I personally believe in the fact that we need to do something in the country about this and I worry a lot about young people not having jobs, I have to put my anger to one side and think about the positive side of the apprenticeship scheme.
I tell them I’ll head up a campaign but if they think they’re going to get some arty-farty advertising agency to map out some stupid advert that no one understands, I’m not interested. The content of any advert that I’m going to be involved in has to be agreed by me upfront and I want to know the amount of money that they’re going to spend and to ensure that 75 per cent of a multimillion pound budget is not going to be given to one of these fancy agencies, who will charge a fortune for their creative genius, taking us on location to Outer Mongolia to wait until the sunlight dips at eleven o’clock in the morning while the ice crystallises and all that crap. They have to work on the basis that if they have x pounds to spend, I want to see at least 80 per cent of it spent on buying the media space. I make that point very clear.
I get home about four o’clock and update my subscriptions for my plane. Every two weeks I need to load new databases into it. It’s my private little plane and it’s got a lot of avionics in it that you need to update. It’s a Cirrus SR22, a very advanced single engine aeroplane.
I head off to Stapleford Aerodrome and put the new updates in the plane. That takes about a quarter of an hour to do and afterwards I pop into the clubhouse at the flying club and chat with a few of my flying cronies. I tell them I’ll most probably be down on Saturday and we can go off flying somewhere.
I try to fly two or three times a week. I enjoy the peacefulness of being up in the air. I’ll sometimes fly to France. In the past I’ve flown down to Nick’s house near Toulouse and spent a couple of days with him.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning and it’s a lovely day so I decide to get my Pinarello bike out. I’ve been cycling for quite a few years on and off. I pump the tyres up, put some money and my mobile phone in the back pocket of my jersey, fill up two water bottles and set off on a 50-mile ride through the Essex countryside. The beauty of it is that I can be somewhere out in High Ongar or wherever and suddenly the phone rings and I’m talking to Ed Balls or James Murdoch or whoever and they’ve no idea where I am. I can also take a look at the emails I’ve accumulated on my BlackBerry and answer a few, then get on my bike again.
About two and a half hours later I get back home. I have a shower, check some more emails and go into the office. I’m having a meeting with my son, Simon, to discuss developments at my new company, Amscreen, which is a digital signage company. The purpose of the business is to put up large flatscreens in various venues. The company has a new technology using GPRS mobile phone technology whereby we’re able to send adverts to those locations without actually physically turning up. It’s a new business and a very leading edge method of advertising.
Simon explains to me that we’ve just acquired another company that deals with medical environments that was down on its luck and didn’t have enough money to invest in the capital equipment that it needed. We’re going to expand the medical environment, such as doctors’ surgeries, dentists’ surgeries, hospital waiting rooms and obviously we’re targeting the pharmaceutical companies for advertising.
I discuss this with him and Lee McQueen, the winner of last year’s Apprentice, who’s been tasked with specialising on the medical side of the business. It’s his baby, so to speak. He’s been doing very well. He’s really taken the bull by the horns.
What comes out of the meeting is the importance of making sure we’re in the right sites. It’s all very well getting your screens in certain doctors’ surgeries and certain hospitals but, at the end of the day – and it’s a learning curve for me – we realise that the advertiser is the one that dictates roughly where it wants to be. So it’s important we find out what particular demographic the advertiser wants to reach and therefore focus on those
places. There’s no point putting a screen in a place where the advertiser’s not interested in being seen.
It turns out to be a very, very important meeting that defines a new strategy for the medical division.
Working with winners
Another early start. I know I’m going to be called to the boardroom around one o’clock to meet the apprentices again to see how they got on with the second task. It’s a lovely day with clear blue skies and I go down to the flying club, jump in my plane and fly around in circles for about an hour and a half.
Afterwards I go home, have a shower, get suited and booted and get the driver to take me to the boardroom to meet the apprentices. At around two o’clock we call them in and listen to their tales of woe. As usual one of the teams wins, the other one loses and we go into an investigation as to who was to blame. You get a picture in your mind of some people being much better than they really are. They talk a good game but, when it gets down to the nitty gritty, they don’t deliver. You come across a lot of people like that in life. They manage to bounce through life but in my kind of organisation these people don’t really last very long.
If the young Alan Sugar had taken part in The Apprentice, he’d have walked it. Easy.
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