By David Hennessy
This week sees the return of BBC’s The Apprentice with another bunch of serious business men and women competing for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment. The natural comedy and drama has emerged with the throwing together of these complete strangers on opposite teams in the first task which ended with victory for the boys and girls’ project manager Jaz Ampaw-Farr being the first to bow out.
Some memorable Irish candidates have stepped into the boardroom over the years, including Jennifer Maguire Jennifer Maguire who has since established herself as a TV presenter with RTE, “Jedi” Jim Eastwood whose powers of mind control seemed to deflect blame away from him for any task failure and last year’s Jane McEvoy from Kilkenny. This year, Leah Totton from Northern Ireland, a 24 year old doctor, will be looking to impress Lord Sugar.
Throughout the entire process, Lord Sugar is aided by Nick Hewer and Karren Brady who observe each task and report. Former public relations consultant and current host of Countdown, Nick Hewer’s mother was Irish and Nick was educated in Kildare before moving to London in the 1960s. Karren, known as the first woman of football for her work turning around the fortunes of Birmingham City in the 1990s, also has Irish roots on her father’s side. The Irish World caught up with the three business leaders at the launch of the current series.
The stakes have risen in recent years with a business partnership, rather than a job with a six figure salary, now the prize. The first episode, aired on Tuesday, saw Lord Sugar asking his candidates about their business ideas where in previous years, their business plan was not asked for until the latter stages. Would the entrepreneur known for building electronics company Amstrad be consciously or subconsciously inclined to keep candidates with particularly appealing business ideas? “I had a quick glimpse at what their business plan is all about initially. I just start off by telling them: ‘You’ve all got a chance because basically I’m not going to run the business’. I don’t go into too much detail, do a deep dive into the business plan, until we kind of get to the end of the process because it’s a waste of time as you can imagine: Looking into 16 plans. I have no objection to any of those initially because I made it quite clear: ‘You’re gonna do the work and I’m just going to be there in an advisory capacity’. And I’m always interested in spreading my wings into different sectors of the market so it doesn’t bother me as to what the business is really about. I think the process is there to really refine the person, to see if they have an ability to be a good business partner. When we get down to the end knockings, I, and Nick and Karren start getting a little bit more involved, more of a deeper dive into what their business plan is about.”
How early in the series can a potential winner emerge? “The three of us tend to say ‘wow, she’s good’, ‘he’s good’ and all that type of stuff at the really early stages but you can change your mind as time goes on. Somebody who may look like he’s brilliant or she’s brilliant but really messes up and somebody comes up the ranks somewhere else, so you really don’t know until you get down to the end knockings. It’s a very good process in that you’re given this 12 week period to decide upon the person because you can understand what they can do and normally I would say first impressions are important but, on this particular process, we have been fooled a few times.”
Karren, current vice- chairman of West Ham United, adds: “I think also, you get 16 entrepreneurs come in and they’re all used to working on their own and suddenly they have to work with people who are just as strong as them and for the first three episodes, they are all jostling for rank and then suddenly the ones that start listening to the feedback they get in the boardroom and learning from what’s gone on, they start to calm down.”
Nick Hewer says: “It has caused some anxiety in years passed when we worry that whoever it was that dealt with the auditions has got it so wrong because there’s such a preeminent candidate and then guess what: Week three, he or she implodes and somebody, as you say, has learned. In the first one, Tim Campbell, nobody noticed him until week ten. He just crept up on the rails.”
The frustrating role must be that of Karren and Nick who see all the mistakes the candidates make and must often be tempted to point these out or even reprimand shoddy practice. Speaking about this, Sugar says: “Well, they do a great job. They get very frustrated out there on the road as you can imagine and they are my eyes and ears, they feed me back information because I have to try to picture what goes on, sometimes on a two or three day task, and they do a tremendously good job. Sometimes it’s a bit tiring, isn’t it?”
Nick answers: “We’re so busy scribbling. We’ve got time for nothing else. Lord Sugar doesn’t see much of anything and everything he learns, he gets from us so we’re busy, too busy for losing tempers.”
Jaz failed to direct her female team to victory in week one and there was the inevitable squabbling over blame. Does Karren, whose achieved so much in a male dominated industry, feel such scenes misrepresent females in business? “I don’t think anyone really understands how tense it is in that boardroom. When they say they’re fighting for their life, they literally are. Each of them have an idea, each of them have a viable business plan and each one of them wants to get £250,000 investment and more importantly go into business with Alan so it’s intense in there. I don’t like to see it as everybody knows and I don’t think it is a fair reflection but equally we have to accept they really are fighting for something they want passionately. I followed the boys on the first task and trust me, they were hard work.”
On air since 2005, how has the show adapted to the harsher economic climate? “I think the show provides a service and we do and have adapted in the last three years to the economic climate,” answers Sugar. “One of the things I said at the very head of the programme is that banks are not there to help people these says. Sorry, let me rephrase that: The banks are there to help people these days if they have some kind of collateral, if they have some kind of track record and that’s how it is. That’s life. A youngster who wants to start up from nothing, they have to set their goals at a much lower level, they can’t expect a free ride, they can’t expect the irresponsible lending as we saw back in the 2004-2005 era.
“The thing about this programme is that it demonstrates with £250,000 as we have done in the last two years with Tom and Ricky (2011 and 2012 winners), we show that we can start a business with a quarter of a million pounds. I know it’s a lot of money, of course it is. I started my business in 1967 with £1,000. I don’t know how inflation is but if you gauge it with a gallon of petrol, I don’t think you would be far behind. £250,000 is not a lot of money to start a business but it is a lot of money to somebody who’s got a seed of an idea and comes along to me and we’re happy to back them.
“So I think we’ve demonstrated how it can be done. I just hope what we’re gonna do is look back, the BBC will look back one day and say ‘there you are, a demonstration of how it can be done’. That’s what we try to demonstrate on this programme.”
For the full feature, see the May 11 print edition of The Irish World.