While Lord Sugar certainly knows who to fire and why to fire them, he's be a little blinded without his confidante Nick Hewer. As The Apprentice descends upon the ShortList office for this week's magazine-themed instalment, we spoke to him about why he thinks the programme is still important for British business.
The Apprentice is a true TV phenomenon. Since its 2005 debut, it has steadily grown in stature, getting promoted from BBC Two to BBC One and pulling in ratings nudging nine million. It’s won Baftas, spawned Junior and Celebrity spin-offs, and seen Lord Sugar’s “You’re fired!” catchphrase enter common pub parlance. It’s ShortList’s favourite reality show (nudging ahead of MasterChef) — but does it serve a wider purpose beyond watercooler entertainment? Is the Beeb behemoth good for British business?
THE RIGHT-HAND MAN
If there’s one man well-placed to tell us, it’s the one right at Sugar’s elbow — trusted advisor Nick Hewer, Sir Alan’s “eyes and ears” on the tasks. With his sceptical squint and memorable turn of phrase (see “all over it like a tramp on chips” and “all gong and no dinner”), he’s the connoisseur’s cult hero of the show.
“Let’s just wind back to why Lord Sugar got involved in this in the first place,” explains Hewer. “In the late Nineties, I ran an initiative for him called ‘You Can Do It Too’ at the behest of Gordon Brown, who was Chancellor at the time, which saw Sir Alan spend three years darting all over the country at his own expense, talking to young people about business. He was passionate about what a pleasure it is to run your own show, to enjoy the responsibility and benefits, and have the ability to support your own family.”
So, in 2004, when the BBC beat Channel 4 to the rights to produce a British version of US TV hit The Apprentice, Sugar was well-placed and eager to take the Donald Trump role. “He saw the opportunity to promote enterprise on a bigger scale,” says Hewer. “And that’s exactly what’s happened.”
Dragons’ Den’s self-styled ‘destroyer’ Theo Paphitis -— boss of Ryman and, since he sold lingerie chain La Senza, worth around £200m — is currently fronting retail contest Britain’s Next Big Thing, which sees members of the public pitching their products to three of the biggest names in UK retail: Liberty, Boots and Habitat. Paphitis believes that a whole new generation of tycoon has been inspired by the business-reality TV genre. “Programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice have shown that business is exciting, creative and achievable. They drive entrepreneurial spirit. Most of my mailbag comes from schoolkids, writing in their thousands, who are so keen to learn about business.”
Hewer has had similar experiences. “When I go to schools or colleges and talk to youngsters, they love The Apprentice,” he says. “Not because [Series 5 contestant] Kate Walsh has a world-class set of teeth and glossy hair, but because of the business. Little kids of eight or nine, which is amazing. Business is truly on the agenda in schools: they’re running Young Enterprise schemes, and business studies has leapt in popularity. Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice can definitely take some credit for that.”
As well as inspiration for the youth of Britain, these shows provide instruction: practical tips on what — and equally what not — to do. Paphitis believes that the BBC has become “a reluctant business educator, bless them.”
Unbelievably, small businesses account for 50 per cent of Britain’s GDP, and one in five households rely on them for income, yet half fail during the first couple of years. “That’s a ridiculously high proportion,” says Paphitis.
“If we can just educate them, hopefully that will make a difference. If fewer small businesses went under, it would be a huge lift to the economy — create jobs and confidence, increase spending and stimulate growth.”
GOOD FOR BUSINESS
So what are the pitfalls and how can TV programmes help? “The biggest killers are always cashflow and lack of planning,” says Paphitis, who goes on to explain how easy it is to find entrants for Dragons’ Den as huge amounts of people have “invested their family fortunes or re-mortgaged their houses” to fund their venture.
“If you go to a casino and stack the cards in your favour, you’ll get thrown out,” he explains, “but in business, that’s called knowing your market. These shows simplify the process and teach people the basics. Draw up a business plan, sort your cashflow, do your research.”
Hewer agrees: “The Apprentice may not offer an MBA, but it teaches buying and selling, adding value, location, product selection, negotiation, marketing, presentation, advertising, handling interviews… Maybe a dozen basic skills. And that’s plenty good enough.”
And while the show does attract its share of boardroom blowhards armed with lunar metaphors, Hewer has short shrift for critics who claim that it doesn’t reflect the real world. “Stuffed suits may say, ‘It’s not really business,’ but if you went to business schools in Yale or Oxford and got the most brilliant people [to star in the show], no one would have a clue what they were talking about. They’d make references to Hungarian economic theory and nobody would watch the thing. It’d be stuck out on BBC 17 at 4am and the bloke who commissioned it would get fired. The whole point is to make it entertaining, so that the jobless man on the squashy sofa can scream at the TV, ‘No, don’t do that! I’d be better than this lot!’
If it was pure business and not wrapped up in an entertainment format, it wouldn’t work.” Perhaps most importantly of all, The Apprentice is a great primetime advertisement for becoming an entrepreneur. Previous small-screen portrayals — from the evil oil barons of Dallas to dodgy Del Boy — have cast businessmen in a negative light.
But in research commissioned by the Department For Business, Innovations And Skills published last month, nine out of 10 established entrepreneurs felt that the current crop of business-reality programmes made viewers think more agreeably about people who start their own company. Half of non-entrepreneurs concurred that these shows made them feel more positive about it. One in five even said that they felt motivated to start their own business. Business minister Mark Prisk MP welcomes these findings. “The media has an important role to play in creating a positive image around entrepreneurship and starting your own business,” he claims. “It’s very encouraging to see such a dramatic shift in recent years, and I hope that this trend continues.”
Miles Templeman, director general of the Institute Of Directors and an experienced executive (his CV includes MD of Whitbread Beer Company and chairman of Yo! Sushi), agrees: “Since the IoD spends a lot of time trying to get more people interested in running their own businesses, we’re generally positive about shows like The Apprentice. It brings the business world into people’s homes and promotes entrepreneurialism to a wide audience. Something of which we’re very much in favour.”
And established businesses are taking note too. “Lots of recruiters replicate the tasks for applicants as part of their assessment process,” says Hewer. “I was recently at Perfetti Van Melle [an Italian confectionery giant that makes Chupa Chups and Fruitella] and they spent a whole day during their annual conference doing a real-time Apprentice, with their sales force out on the streets badgering people. It really has inspired all sorts.”
ON THE FAST TRACK
Such shows also provide role models to prospective entrepreneurs. One such man was Tim Warrilow, who six years ago left his ad exec job to co-found Fever-Tree, makers of premium natural mixers. It’s now one of the UK’s fastest growing companies, with turnover of £12m. Its drinks are sold in 25 countries and served in seven of the world’s top 10 restaurants — including as a frozen tonic soup course at the legendary El Bulli.
“I was approaching 30 when we decided to start Fever-Tree and my weekly fix of The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den gave me that extra bit of belief,” recalls Warrilow. “I’m very pro-business TV. It gets the juices going. It inspires, brings enterprise to life and makes you wonder if you can give it a go.”
Warrilow believes that TV has raised the profile of small business and opened doors for start-ups. “People definitely stop and listen to you more than they did a decade ago,” he says. “Corporate is no longer cool. It’s entrepreneurship that’s in-vogue and being talked about. I see that when I’m recruiting now. People have watched these shows, seen the trappings of success enjoyed by figureheads like the Dragons, and find that more alluring. It’s a less stiff, tie-wearing way of doing business, and that’s appealing, especially to younger generations.”
Hewer agrees. “The 21st century seems to be the time of self-reliance,” he says. “No one’s got a job forever these days, so you have to live off your own resources — either within employment or on your own. We have to sell ourselves and can’t depend on a company to carry us any more.”
The new series reflects this trend towards start-ups, as there’s a major change to the winner’s prize. Rather than a £100k job at his company that’s been the victor’s prize for the past six years, Lord Sugar is now offering a £250k investment to the budding entrepreneurs in a new venture of the winner’s choice. As well as start-up finances, Sugar will provide his expertise and retain 50 per cent ownership.
“The stakes are even higher,” Hewer says with relish. “We’re looking for someone who, throughout the process, demonstrates the skills to run a company. A lot of the tasks are geared towards starting businesses and the fact that it is indeed possible to do that in even the most harsh economic conditions. Often things spring out of recession. People are made redundant, which is unfortunate — but it’s also an opportunity. That’s the time when a big, life-changing choice can be made. What’s to lose? Plus, it gives you added incentive. Hopefully, if it’s your own business, you’ll never be made redundant again.”
What better motivation? Not so much “You’re fired” as “You’re fired up”. And as we know from those lunar footprints, the sky’s the limit.
The Apprentice is on BBC One on Wednesdays at 9pm
Read Stylist's interview with Karren Brady, right here.