Sir Alan Sugar
Chancellor. We all think we know Alan Sugar. He’s the one who says ‘you’re fired’ a lot on television. He’s already the most talked about entrepreneur in Britain and is well on his way to becoming a legend in his own time. Before the myths get in the way, here are ten essential things you need to know about him.
One. He was born in Hackney in 1947 where life was about working very, very hard and still being poor. He decided there and then that this was not for him. So while still at school he boiled beetroots for the local greengrocer, made ginger beer to sell to his neighbours and bought photographic film, which he cut into camera-sized rolls and sold to friends at school. He had an instinct for a business opportunity and by the time he was 13, he was making more money than his Dad, a garment factory worker.
Two. He still works very hard but when he takes a break, he’s happier being with friends and family than listening to people waffling on, as he puts it, at City bashes and lunches. However, he does have his share of toys. He used to own a 160ft super-yacht, the Louisiana, but decided it wasn’t cost-effective so he sold it. But don’t worry he still has four planes plus the trademark Rolls, 2 Bentleys and a number of Minis which he keeps in the US and Spain. He bought them in different colours so as to know which country he’s in.
Three. He has relentless energy, needs challenges and routinely sets himself new targets like learning to fly and passing complicated pilots’ examinations. This is what he said about that experience: ‘I've been at it for two weeks, virtually non-stop and it's a brain-bang. I'm really annoyed with myself for not being able to grasp it quickly enough. It doesn't matter how much money you've got, or who you are, you've got to know what you're doing. It's interesting because you can't buy it.’
Four is about his years at Spurs where he was chairman for a decade. He and Terry Venables got together to buy the club in 1991 knowing that it faced the possibility of bankruptcy. As events unfolded and he uncovered the years of mismanagement and football’s bung culture, which he was the first to expose, he was put under severe strain. But he didn’t flinch from what he saw as his duty to the football community. He behaved with dignity and honesty and fought hard for his club. With hindsight it’s clear that the club and its supporters are indebted to him for turning it into one of the most financially stable clubs in Britain and providing the platform for its success.
Five. He founded Amstrad (Alan Michael Sugar Trading) in 1968, the same year that he married his wife, Ann. In 1970, the company began to manufacture hi-fi systems. The 1980s saw the introduction of the first mass market computer package (1984), the first mass market dedicated work processor (1985) and a doubling of the business’s size every year. At its peak Amstrad achieved a stock market valuation of £1.2 billion and, as an international consumer electronics, telecommunications and computer empire it is still pushing at the boundaries with the introduction of inexpensive satellite receivers and internet-ready phones.
Six is about his work as an entrepreneurial role model and benefactor about which he is passionate but which is much less publicised than most of his other activities. Through the Alan Sugar Foundation he gives generously to charity. In 1993 he was the driving force behind the Excalibur Scholarship Scheme, recruiting 21 other UK companies to raise £1m to allow graduates from the old Eastern Bloc to study in Europe. In 1997, Gordon Brown asked him to join the ‘You can do it too’ scheme to promote the values of enterprise amongst alienated young people. He now devotes substantial time to the task. For these activities he has gained recognition in the form of a DSc from City University in1988 and a knighthood in 2000.
Seven. In each of the 12 weeks of The Apprentice, a reality TV show, our honorary graduand fired one after another of 14 applicants for a £100,000-a-year job as his apprentice. He is a television natural, combining down-to-earth homilies on business success with to-the-point assessments of his young applicants’ evident failings. This riveting programme became the unexpected hit of the spring schedules. Tim Campbell, who won the final round because he was the better organiser, strategic thinker and team leader, is now project manager for Amstrad’s Health Care division.
Eight is a warning – he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. It was only at the very last minute that the BBC realised that they hadn’t solved the problem of keeping the outcome of the Apprentice secret. They found a solution in time - filming two versions and hiring both contestants on a temporary basis for 6 months until the show was broadcast - but it was a close call. This didn’t please him one little bit, as he made clear to the BBC and to the waiting media. But the producers whom he criticised speak warmly of him, describing him as genuine rather than two-faced or smarmy - a straight-up man whose ability and vision more than make up for a bit of belligerence.
Nine is about the way he really runs his business. In The Apprentice our honorary graduand is shown as the no-nonsense street trader he was in 1968, searching for someone with the killer instinct and hiring and firing people at will. It certainly makes great television. But the behaviour of his close colleagues, Margaret Mountford and Nick Hever, belie this portrayal; as does his final choice of Tim as his apprentice, an accomplished motivator and team leader who would fit best with his company’s culture. He is without doubt a born entrepreneur who trusts his finely tuned instincts and he has no time for focus groups, management gobbledegook or decision by committee. But he has created a great business by enlisting his staff to the cause and sustaining a team-based culture.
And the final thing you should know? Well, if I’ve got anything wrong about him he will let me know about it!
Chancellor, it gives me great pleasure to present Alan Sugar to you for the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.