A life in the firing line
He has endured set-backs, betrayals and litigation and his company has survived recessions, take-over bids and near-bankruptcy. Hero or villain, star of The Apprentice Sir Alan Sugar is a man who knows what it takes to keep a business alive. His autobiography, What You See is What You Get, is a fascinating, articulate and funny account of one man’s journey from the market stalls of the East End to doing business with some of the biggest names in technology and the media. By Ed O’Hare.
What took a young man from a council flat in Clapton to chief of one of the most profitable business empires Europe has ever seen? Tenacity, adaptability, self-belief; all of these played their part in transforming Alan Sugar from a poor tailor’s son to the head of a corporate giant worth billions, but you need to read a considerable chunk of his memoir, What You See is What You Get, before he lets you in on the big secret to making money: There is no big secret to making money. You are either a natural entrepreneur, someone born with a shrewd brain and an eye for opportunities, or you are not and no amount of time spent at the Harvard Business School is going to make a difference.
Alan Sugar, or Sir Alan or Lord Sugar as fans of the UK version of The Apprentice know to call him, was always an entrepreneur. From the cradle he was adamant that he would leave behind the extreme poverty (his father worked in a sweat-shop and made him facsimile school uniforms to avoid expense) of the Jewish household in which he was raised. While his school results weren’t always impressive, his teachers recognised his innate ability as a salesman. He was perpetually on the make. From old railway sleepers to wool off-cuts, from ginger beer to school magazines, Sugar saw financial possibilities in everything. He managed to hold down several part-time jobs at once, working in a pharmacy, a bakery and on a market stall. Famously, he was boiling sack-loads of beetroot for a greengrocer when he was only 12 years old.
Eventually Sugar’s interest in technology won out. He repaired bicycles, worked as a photographer and sold his classmates film he came across in an ex-army store. After years of dossing he pulled up his socks when it came to his GCE’S but refused to wait on and sit his A-levels. Instead, Sugar became a clerical officer in the Ministry of Education’s statistics division. When he was 16, Sugar, the youngest member of his family, became the first to have a bank account.
Less than stimulated by his work Sugar continued to pursue different sidelines, including a misguided foray into the world of ladies’ cosmetics, before finally forsaking the Ministry to become what his father labelled ‘a bloody salesman’ for an electrical firm. After years of hectic and mostly unrewarded hustling Sugar then resolved to work for himself. In 1966 at the age of 19 he withdrew £100, bought a second-hand mini-van and some car aerials, and hit the road.
Sugar was not entirely alone in this enterprise. He had a reliable network of contacts. He had also met Ann, who would become his wife. Furthermore, his timing could not have been better. By now electronic goods were becoming more affordable and Sugar’s scheme of buying them from wholesalers and selling them himself paid off spectacularly. From car aerials he moved into amplifiers, radios and televisions, and the mini-van gave way to a series of ever-larger premises. What moved Sugar’s business into the big time was his decision that some imported goods were too expensive and that he should start making his own. Never one to be intimidated by appearances, Sugar’s childhood passion for electronics had told him that such products were ultimately just boxes full of simple components. In December 1968 he paid £2,800 for a tool for producing plastic hi-fi covers, assembled a workforce and formed the AMS (Alan Michael Sugar) Trading Company, or Amstrad.
In no time Amstrad was making £6000 monthly profit and Sugar was banging on the doors of some of the retailers he had previously dealt with, this time representing his own goods and his own company. Sugar realized that it was imperative to move into higher-cost items and to find out what he needed to sell next there was only one place to go: Japan. In the Akihabara, Tokyo’s premier trading district and the world’s showcase for cutting-edge technologies, Sugar found all manner of new gadgets unknown to the Western market. In 1975 he joined forces with a Japanese electronics manufacturer known to all as ‘The Emperor’ and before long huge shipments of affordable cassette decks and VCRs were being imported into Europe.
A walk along the Akihabara ten years later gave Sugar the concept which turned Amstrad into a truly global player. This was the word-processor. Amstrad had already successfully diversified into personal computers but the development in 1985 of the PCW8256 integrated computer and printer (which sold for £399, as opposed to £5000 for an IBM model) was the breakthrough that made all Sugar’s previous triumphs pale by comparison. He literally could not make them fast enough.
Then, exactly when everything seemed to be going right, everything went wrong. The PC 2000, Amstrad’s next computer was a disaster. By 1989 Sugar had £335m of unsold stock, and owed the bank £114m. The company’s profits fell by over £100m in two years. Sugar miraculously managed to claw back what he’d lost and was in the black to the tune of £24m within six months. Amstrad’s guardian angel came in the unlikely form of Rupert Murdoch, who gave it the contract to supply satellite dishes for Sky TV. There were many dark days still in store for Sugar, mostly as a result of the continuing devaluation of Amstrad and the fiasco that resulted when he bought Tottenham Hotspur and became embroiled in a hugely controversial legal battle with the club’s chief executive Terry Venables - whom he fired - but he managed to guide the company he had founded through these misfortunes and rebuild it into one of the most lucrative and extensive British business groups.
Admirers of Lord Sugar shall be glad to know that his notoriously irascible manner and straight-for-the-jugular sense of humour transfers perfectly to the page. He is far from the man some accused of having had a ‘charisma bypass’ and his memoir is a direct, witty and engrossing read. In his attitude to writing, as with his attitude to business, Sugar expects you to accept what he says. He has no hesitation in labelling those he has argued with as ‘twits,’ ’tossers’ ‘bullshitters’ and even ‘double-barrelled prats’. And yet what emerges most unexpectedly from Sugar’s story is his admission of a tremendous personal shyness which took him years to overcome and of an emotional disconnect in his own personality which he attributes to a lack of parental affection. An enormously enjoyable and informative autobiography, would-be entrepreneurs could do much worse than look to it for inspiration.
What You See is What You Get: My Autobiography. By Sir Alan Sugar.
Published by Macmillan, 589 pp.