He may well have been at the forefront of the British consumer technology market for almost 40 years, but Sir Alan Sugar hates talking to the media about it.
The founder and chairman of electronics giant Amstrad has a fearsome reputation among journalists. The words ‘blunt’, ‘abrasive’ and ‘rude’ have been used to describe his interview etiquette. So when a rare opportunity to meet him arises, it is an occasion best approached delicately.
Amstrad, best known for its innovations in home computing in the 1980s, is still a major player, having turned in a pre-tax profit of £15.6m this year (compared with £3.8m last year). On the same day he is scheduled to meet PRWeek, Sugar has launched his latest gadget, the email-enabled E3 home videophone, at a slick press event. In subsequent interviews he has already been overheard raising his voice with one reporter.
Forthright but cordial
The first thing Sugar says is a weary plea: ‘Please restrict your questions to not repeating what I’ve already said at the launch.’
However, rather than the abrasive interviewee anticipated, he is charming. Forthright, yes, but cordial.
He rubs tired eyes several times and shifts to the edge of his seat every two minutes as if to say ‘one more question and that’s your lot’ throughout the interview. But it turns out he is one of those chief executives who knows he has to do it but would much rather be selling products than answering a constant stream of journalists’ questions.
It was no doubt his straight-talking manner and extraordinary entrepreneurial qualities (he is an adviser to Gordon Brown, and the Daily Mirror last month ranked him the 13th most successful businessman in Britain, with a fortune of more than £700m) that led the BBC to invite him to front the British version of hit US reality TV series The Apprentice, which airs on BBC 2 next year.
In the show, Sugar will put 14 contestants through the mill on a 12-week task-based interview process to win an apprenticeship under the man himself for a year.
His unflinching ability to shout ‘You’re fired!’ at one contestant each week is expected to be a genuine draw to viewers in the same way that Donald Trump drew 20 million viewers to the US version.
He refuses to be drawn on questions about The Apprentice and how the inevitable boost to his media profile will force him into yet more painful media interviews.
He restricts his response to: ‘It was of interest to me simply because it falls in line with that enterprise drive that I have had with the Government for many years and my interest in stimulating entrepreneurial spirit.
‘I think it’s going to be a great flagship programme for the BBC because it’s going to be realistic and you will see some very good young people demonstrating their skills.’
Entrepreneurial spirit is something Sugar himself has in spades. His company pioneered the mass-market home computer when Amstrad (which took its name from Alan Michael Sugar Trading) launched the CPC464 in 1984. At only £399, it was cheap even by today’s standards. When compared with the average price tag of £2,000 for an IBM or Olivetti PC in 1985, it becomes clear why Amstrad made such inroads. It is this approach to marketing products that Sugar maintains today.
‘Nothing has changed,’ he says. ‘Consumers like a good price and the product has to be launched at the right time. They’ve got to be made available in large volumes and they’ve got to be easy to use.’
He readily admits that his third-generation E3 videophone, which allows users to talk while viewing colour video images of each other, probably only has a small window of two years to break into the market and turn a profit. After that period, rival technologies will probably have surpassed it on benefits and appeal.
With this in mind, he adds that compared with other Amstrad products, such as E3 forerunner the em@iler, ‘it won’t take as long to prove itself simply by the fact that the subsidy is significantly lower than on the existing models. So it turns into profit that much quicker.
‘Plus, it has all these added features that are going to generate more revenue, such as the videophone.’
It soon becomes clear that Sugar is among the best salesmen this country has ever produced. Having left school, the youngest of four children of a family living in a council flat in Hackney, he took a job with the Ministry of Education and Science. He soon got bored of office work and moved into sales, where he blossomed.
However, his determination to get a fair cut of his own success caused him to walk out of four jobs in a year before deciding to go it alone.
Alan Michael Sugar Trading was born in 1967 after Sugar withdrew £100 from his savings account to buy a second-hand van and insure it, with the balance ploughed into the electrical goods that were to be the company’s first ‘stock’. It became Amstrad the following year. By the mid-1980s, Amstrad was listed on the London Stock Exchange and valued at £1.2bn. The super growth the company enjoyed was a precursor to the internet and technology boom of the 1990s.
Having been through both, Sugar should be in a good position to know the challenges that might face Amstrad and the consumer tech sector in the next few years, but he says: ‘I don’t know what they are. As the market changes and new technologies come along we hope we’re fleet of foot and adapt to whatever the market demands.’
But one thing he believes strongly is that the way to sell new technology has not changed since he first began doing it.
Keep it simple
‘It’s the same ethos,’ says the Amstrad chairman. ‘Keep it simple. Hide the technology under the hood. In this product [E3] is a very sophisticated piece of electronics, but I don’t want to bore people by printing the specifications. That’s meaningless. Press this button and it will work for you [is a more meaningful message].’
Sugar now lives between three countries, enjoying luxury homes in Essex, Spain and Florida, although he says he spends less time in the US than in Europe.
‘I can flit backwards and forwards between England and Spain simply because of the internet,’ says Sugar. ‘I have an office set up in all of the locations. As it is, people don’t know where I am because I’m communicating with them as quickly as if I was on the tenth floor penthouse in Brentwood [Amstrad’s HQ].
‘So it doesn’t really matter where I am – I am open for business 24 hours a day.’
He has devoted significant time to encouraging entrepreneurial spirit among young people in recent years. Like his Daily Mirror column ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, which answers reader queries about business ideas, The Apprentice will be another outlet for that interest. But like all ambitious businesspeople, he admired successful entrepreneurs when he started out.
‘The late Arnold Weinstock [an industrialist and GEC UK managing director for 30 years] was someone I looked up to quite a bit,’ he says. ‘Earlier on in my lifetime I admired people like my uncle, who was the only one in business [in my family]. He had a corner shop in London’s Victoria.
‘But as you move up the ladder in business you start to admire people who are publicly known. Rupert Murdoch is a man I admire for his sheer balls in taking on things and doing what he has done in the past 15 years or so. Bill Gates is a phenomenon. Twenty-five years ago he was virtually the same kind of level as me. We were the first people to take out licences for mass-market PCs back in the early 1980s.’
Just as he is getting going, he stops. Yet another shift in his seat is clear body language: his patience has run out. With a gentle glint in his eye, he turns to me and says: ‘Now, I’m going to admire you a lot if you get out that bloody door.’
Founds Alan Michael Sugar Trading, which becomes Amstrad the following year
Amstrad lists on London Stock Exchange
Launches first mass-market IBM-compatible PC
Amstrad launches the em@iler
Amstrad launches E3 videophone