The Apprentice is back, fronted by business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar alongside his trusted advisors Baroness Karren Brady and Tim Campbell MBE.
The series returns with 18 candidates and brand-new tasks, where we’ll see the hopeful business candidates battle it out for the opportunity of a lifetime for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment and mentorship.
We asked him some penetrating questions about the new series.
You’re back for series 18, how excited are you for the audience to see this series?
Well, I’m very pleased with this series because the quality of the candidates that we have attracted this year is superb, I have to say. This year, we’ve got a lot to work with.
What do you think has changed?
This year, we had more business focused tasks early in the audition process so that my team and the production company could filter out and find serious potential businesspeople.
What makes you keep coming back to the show?
Well, I love it. I love doing it. If I didn’t like doing it, I wouldn’t do it. I can assure you I’ve got plenty of other things to do in my life, but I do enjoy it. And what I enjoy about it is that it’s growing acorns to oak trees. It’s finding a person and starting all over again and doing exactly what I did back in the ’60s.
Do you have an idea of how long you want to do the show given the 20th anniversary is around the corner?
Well, obviously we’re going to do that. No question. But bear in mind, it’s not my call, it’s the BBC’s call. They’re the ones that will decide whether the programme has got longevity beyond 20 series. I have a contract to do series 19, I don’t have a contract to do series 20 yet, but I’m pretty damn sure that I’ll ask them to do it and we’ll do it. But it’s really up to them. It’s up to their scheduling and all that type of thing.
Me personally, I love it. I love doing it. I know Karren loves doing it. Tim loves doing it. And bear in mind that we’ve got people coming along now who 20 years ago weren’t even born. Or we’ve got people coming along now who were five years or six years old when they first started watching The Apprentice through their mums and dads. And now they’re coming on the show. So, it’s great. It’s fantastic. And it’s a great BBC programme.
How important are Baroness Brady and Tim Campbell to you in this process?
Unbelievable. Karren is brilliant. Tim is brilliant. They’ve got it. They’re the ones that tell me what’s going on when they’re out in the field with the candidates. I get emails, maybe 10 emails a day, as they’re going on. “Fred’s just fallen over. Fred’s just dropped all the ice cream. Harry’s just screwed up in front of the buyer.” I get it all. That’s how I get my information to actually question the candidates in the boardroom. They’re brilliant because they’ve done it for so long, right? They’re experts. They know what to look for and they know what to tell me and they know when to shut the candidates up and to steer them in the right direction.
They are very important to me when it comes to deciding who I’m going to fire and hire. I mean, you could say the show is all Lord Sugar, it’s not. It’s Lord Sugar, Karren and Tim. It’s definitely down to them also as much as me. I can’t get all my questions out to the candidates without them telling me what went on in the task.
A large percentage of your audience is the much sought after 16-24 age bracket, why do you think you are attracting that age range when people might expect them to be focussed on dating shows or streamers?
First of all, what you need to understand is, and I don’t wish to be disrespectful to any other host of business programmes, but I have done everything. I’ve literally done everything. When I’m questioning the candidates, I question them from a position of absolute experience of knowing every single facet of starting a business from scratch right the way up to becoming a multi-billion-pound turnover business. I think what happens is the interrogation or the questioning, put it that way, of the candidates, is what attracts the youngsters. If I’m walking down the street, it is that age group of people who come up to me to ask for a signature or a photograph or something like that.
Despite all that you still haven’t personally won a Bafta for what you’ve done for business!
We have won Baftas, of course, the programme’s won. And then I came up with the idea of the Junior Apprentice, right? And guess what? That also won. I think Bafta should give me a special award for 20 years of business. Simon Cowell got a special award for 10 years in music. Why can’t I have a special award for 20 years of business? I’ve got all the other gongs for everything else, the only one that I haven’t got is a Bafta.
When you go into a new series, what is it that you are looking for in a business partner, and has that changed over the years?
No. When you’re confronted initially with 18 new people, you don’t know them, all I’ve received is 18 CVs. Detailed CVs, not just a single page, but a thick document of about 15 pages. I read that carefully and, it’s not until we kick off and as the weeks go by that I start to get a feeling for individuals. There have been many times in the early stages of process, Karren, Tim, Claude or Nick Hewer have said, “that bloke’s good or this girl’s great, this one’s good”, and all that. And then suddenly, throughout the course of the process, the others start to climb, and you change your mind as it’s going through. The most frequently asked question to me is, do you know who’s going to win as soon as you see the whole lot? The answer is absolutely not. I don’t know who’s going to win until we really get through to the end of the series.
You really do study the candidates before you meet them?
I do. I’ve looked at them carefully and I make notes on their CVs, they are all marked up. It’s 15 pages. For example, I would highlight page 15 and things that they’ve written in their CVs. I will highlight it and then I can go straight to that page in the boardroom, what they’re claiming, I’ve got their tactics, I’ve got their regrets, I’ve got their best efforts, their worst efforts, what angers them, what their hobbies are, who their role models are. I know them before they walk through the door. There’s no pulling the wool over my eyes, I know them before we even meet.
How important are first impressions because the candidates tend to make quite bold statements at the beginning?
Yes, important. But I don’t blame them for saying these things. It’s when we get down to the nitty gritty, when I’m really talking to them, when I’m asking them questions and looking at their answers, that’s when I’m forming an opinion of the individuals.
When it comes to the boardroom, how do you find the balance between entertaining but also being authentic?
Well, I think it is important that it is entertaining as well. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve got these young people following us. I explain to people business mistakes and good bits of business and the youngsters pick up on it. They love it, but they also love it when I give some people a bit of stick or when I make some jokes about their mistakes and all that stuff. There’s a fine balance of keeping it entertaining but also taking the business seriously.
Your one-liners though are legendary!
I do have a good sense of humour! I think I get it from my mum. She had a very dry sense of humour.
What are you looking for from the candidates in those tense boardroom moments?
I’m looking for character, I’m looking for brain power. And this is the most important thing, do they get it? A lot of the candidates in the early stages simply don’t get it. And that’s why I let them go. Do you get it? It’s as simple as that. All the shouting and screaming amongst each other, I have to shut them up. Just be quiet. They just start screaming. It’s not good. I’m always telling them, “One at a time. I’ll let you all speak. I’ll let everybody speak. No need to shout and scream over each other.” I’m just looking for do they get it? Simple as that.
This series sees tasks around electric cars, vegan cheese and virtual escape rooms. Is it important to you that tasks reflect the changing markets?
They’re keeping me up to date also over the years, all this bloody virtual reality and all that type of thing. Of course, I’m a technical person, so I’ve been in the electronics industry and software industry all of my life. It’s not too bad. I’m able to keep up with it. Don’t forget, 30 years ago I introduced computers for games playing. I know all about that.
With the country facing economic turmoil, does that impact the type of business you’re interested in?
I’ve been in business for 60 years nearly, and I’ve gone through valleys and mountains of recessions, booms and busts and all that stuff. And to be honest with you, I’ve just kept my head down and got on with my business. I’m focused on my business and that’s what we do and that’s what we do with the winners of The Apprentice. I don’t let myself get dragged into, “Oh, I’m not going to do that now because there’s a recession out there or the cost-of-living crisis.” No, sorry, I can’t do that.
How much of success is based on taking risks outside of your comfort zone? Or is it about detailed preparation?
All success is about risk. Risk, reward. Yes, calculated risks. Sensible gambles, sensible risks. Entrepreneurs stand out because they’re prepared to make bold moves when other people are scared. I always tell people don’t get involved in something that you have no experience in. That’s my ethos. I only deal in areas that I do have experience in. I wouldn’t go off and try and start an airline tomorrow. I wouldn’t go off and start a mobile phone company. I’ll stick to what I know. And that’s why I say to the candidates, when the tasks come up, don’t dive in because you want to be a project manager. Do you know anything about this? Is it synergistic to your business or to your knowledge? If it’s not, stay away.
Watch The Apprentice on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from Thursday 1st February.
See also: Your Chance to be a TV Drama Star