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Stylist meets Lord Alan Sugar

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With series seven of The Apprentice about to return to our screens (and a new focus on entrepreneurship we're most excited about), we revisit our interview with the straight-talking business mogul Lord Alan Sugar.

When a person has turned conducting the world’s most difficult job interview into an incredibly successful TV show, turning up to grill them is rather intimidating, especially when that person is also the CEO of a business empire worth £83million. How do you take control of the situation and make the famously deadpan and straight-talking Lord Alan Sugar follow your lead? The truth is, you don’t.

The first thing that Lord Sugar makes infinitely clear when Stylist interviews him very early one Monday morning is that his time is precious. He enters the room via a backdoor in a similar fashion to the one he uses in TV’s most famous boardroom, dressed in a black pinstripe suit and black snakeskin brogues. Think his tough guy persona is strictly for TV? Wrong. We can testify that he really is firm, direct and supremely confident, regardless of whether you’re hankering after a £100,000 position at his company or not. And so we give the reigns to him.

Despite this, 63-year-old Lord Sugar is also very funny. He happily admits that he’s regularly amused by a lot of The Apprentice contestants (the current batch of male candidates “argue like washerwomen,” he says) and often struggles to keep a straight face in the boardroom. In fact, his witty one liners – “You were devastated when you got a B in your GCSE French. You’ll be even more devastated now. You’ve got a big ‘F’. You’re fired!” and “Shut up will you? I’ll give you a shovel in a minute to dig a bigger hole for yourself” – are some of the show’s best moments.

Comedic timing aside, his focus on business is palpable and no doubt something that’s helped The Apprentice maintain its place as a reality show for the intelligent viewer. Despite pulling in more than eight million viewers per episode in the last series, it could have been easy for The Apprentice to descend into parody but not only has Lord Sugar helped many businessmen and women springboard to stratospheric levels of success, he’s officially made business, in all its seriousness, very cool.

Sugar isn’t all business though.

The support of his wife Lady Ann, a former hairdresser he met aged 17 in his hometown of Chigwell, Essex, has clearly been a huge asset to him and he name checks her regularly in interviews. And we’re pretty sure his seven grandchildren, born to his three children, Simon, 41, David, 39, and Louise, 36, don’t call him “Lord Sugar”.

We suspect there’ll be lots more revelations about his personal life and his rise to the top in his forthcoming autobiography, What You See Is What You Get. While Stylist isn’t sure this title completely sums up the man himself (we suspect there is more to him under the business-like veneer), it’s not a bad self-appraisal…

Who are your favourite women from past series' of The Apprentice?

You’ll get me into trouble if I talk of a favourite woman. What I do is tell most candidates that they can get in touch with me after the process. People like Saira Khan, Ruth Badger and Debra Barr certainly stick in my memory and Yasmina Siadatan, who won the last series. She still continues to do a great job. All of these women were different in their approach but equally impressive in their results.

Who had the best approach?

I really don’t care how you get to your destination as long as you arrive there successfully. There isn’t an exact science to success but I do look out for dynamic candidates with common sense and a keen business brain.

Why did you pick Margaret Mountford, then Karren Brady to be your aides?

I’ve known both for a long time and they both bring different skills to the table. Karren’s business experience speaks for itself and that’s exactly why I wanted her involved in this process. She’s a phenomenal role model and a great business icon for women.

Who is the woman you most respect in your life?

My wife. She’s been there from the beginning and is a great support to me. She’s really kept my feet on the ground. But in terms of the woman who’s had the biggest impact on my life, I have to say my mum, who taught me the value of money and hard work.

From your experience, what are the main differences in the way men and women approach business?

I don’t believe men and women differ significantly but some women certainly seem to have that killer instinct. I find women get on with things much quicker and don’t waste time jockeying for positions by spelling out how good they are, what they’ve done, what they’ve got. That’s a man’s trait.

Is there anybody you’ve regretted firing on the show?

Every person I’ve fired on the programme is fired because I don’t think they’re right for my organisation. There’s no room for emotional attachment in business and many of the candidates who haven’t won have gone on to achieve their dreams. I certainly don’t have regrets because all the previous winners have had what I was looking for at the time, but people do have to adapt as the business landscape continues to evolve. This year we particularly wanted candidates who have been affected by the recession to apply and they have. I’m looking forward to seeing how hungry they are. I believe they’re some of our strongest intake yet.

What are the pressures for entrepreneurs in 2010?

We’re in a period of economic recovery and for many 2010 has been a year of new beginnings. Entrepreneurs today need to demonstrate their ability to lay sturdy foundations for the future and a resilience to face these tough times head on and make a success.

What would you do if you were starting a business now?

The same thing I’ve always done – make it a success! And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I stick to what I know, something I have experience in. I don’t start a business just because it sounds like a good idea or fashionable.

Women get on with things and don’t waste time spelling out how good they are. That’s a man’s trait

Do you see the show ending up at some point? What would your life be like without it?

I’m concentrating on this series at the moment but yes there will be another one – with a twist. Next year, the successful apprentice will no longer win a £100K job working in one of my businesses – instead I’ll set up a new business alongside them with an initial investment worth £250,000. There’ll also be a new series of Junior Apprentice, something I’m very pleased about. This year’s juniors were brilliant and a fantastic example of the younger generation making a name for themselves in business.

As one of the world’s busiest men, how do you switch off?

Well, when I’m not in the office, I’m thinking of new business ventures and how to develop my existing businesses to the next level, but I do like spending time with my family in our homes in Marbella and Florida. I’m also a qualified pilot and go cycling frequently. Both of those are passions of mine I don’t often talk about. Also, I’m really getting into Twitter. People didn’t believe it was me to begin with, but I think they’ve now realised I’ve joined the Twitter generation!

What’s the attraction for a busy businessman like you?

Well, there are some things you just have to tweet. Like when I was at a tennis tournament in Spain and Bruce Forsyth sat down next to me. It had to be him because of the hair and I thought “Blimey, stick it on Twitter!”.

Words: Megan Connor. Picture Credits: Rex Features and Getty Images

Want to seeLord Sugar in action? Watch the best boardroom firings from previous series of The Apprentice.

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