A fiery hustler
A fiery hustler
|Michael Cullen profiles Sir Alan Sugar, the Hackney barrow-boy made good|
It should be interesting to watch guests' body language when Sir Alan Sugar walks up to the podium at the Marketing Society Christmas lunch in early December. Will the festive banquet take on the atmosphere of a school assembly awaiting instructions as the man who must be obeyed makes his points with the dexterity of a darts pub champion?
Or, will the Amstrad founder show the grace expected of a noble gentleman decorated by Her Majesty the Queen for achievements to the United Kingdom? The latter might be a wiser choice as his Irish guests, seated upright, mull over the thought: "Jaysus Sugar, it's a long way from a council flat in London's east end, you've come".
Sugar - one tends to drop the royal moniker in a Republic - rose to great heights in business. The son of a tailor, he started Amstrad electronics in 1968, aged 21. The name was not created by a marketing guru, but as with all good salesmen, it was a DIY job. Amstrad is an acronym of the initials of Alan Michael Sugar plus the ‘trad' in trading.
Amstrad designed, developed and sold electronic products. Having listed the business in 1980, Sugar shot to fame by launching a series of word processors and home computers.
Amstrad struggled since its heyday in the 1980s when it launched Britain's first mass-market computer, becoming a household name and earning a market value of over £1.2 billion. It became overly dependent on Sky, its biggest customer accounting for close to 75 per cent of sales and was criticised for not investing in research and development.
In August of last year, Sugar sold Amstrad to Rupert Murdoch's Sky. Despite his flamboyant lifestyle and a long history running his own companies, Sugar remained on at Amstrad until July of this year.
Sugar is said to have netted £35m after Sky paid out £102m. In 1991, Sugar took over north London football club, Tottenham Hotspur, after a battle with publisher Robert Maxwell. His time as chairman at White Hart Lane was eventful. He was loathed by Spurs fans because they felt he was more into business deals than football.
Like Eamon Dunphy, Sugar had little time for manager Terry Venables. On the night before the 1993 FA Cup Final, he sacked Venables, who then applied to the high courts to have himself reinstated. Taunted by Spurs fans, who loved ‘El Tel' and his Arthur Daley style, Sugar remarked after doing the deed: "I felt as though I killed Bambi".
Ossie Ardiles later became one of seven Spurs managers who worked under Sugar in the nine years he was in charge at ‘White Hart Strain'. In that time, Spurs failed to finish in the top six and won only one trophy, the Worthington (Carling) Cup in 1999.
Sugar ran into trouble with the club's star players. In 1994, he signed Jurgen Klinsman from Monaco who went on to become Footballer of the Year in his first season. But when Spurs failed to qualify for the UEFA Cup, Klinsman invoked a get-out clause in his contract and returned home to Germany and Bayern Munich after only a year.
The incident prompted Sugar to appear on TV with Klinsman's shirt, saying he wouldn't even use it to wash his car. He called foreign players coming to England as highly-paid "Carlos Kickaballs". Klinsman called Sugar "a man without honour... only interested in money". But the two men later made up and Klinsman later returned to Spurs on loan.
Sir Alan Sugar in an ad for Savings & Investment. Ben Priest, creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, had this to say in a review in Campaign: "There's nothing wrong with using celebs in ads but I'm afraid Big Al's wooden performance and all the horse-racing imagery got in the way of a brilliant product being explained".
In his autobiography, Teddy Sheringham accused Sugar of being a hypocrite and lacking ambition. At 31, Sheringham asked Sugar to give him a new five-year contract. Sugar would not agree to such a deal for a player who would be 36 at the end of his contract. Sheringham left Spurs for Manchester United but returned in 2003, aged 37.
Sugar later agreed to buy Les Ferdinand, 31, for a club record transfer fee of €6m and on a higher salary than what Sheringham had sought. Sugar sold his majority 27 per cent stake in Tottenham in 2001 to ENIC. The leisure group also bought his remaining shares in the club for £25m last year, thereby ending his 16-year affair with Spurs.
What does Sugar think of marketing and advertising? Well, not a lot if you heed some of the remarks he has made. When two teams in The Apprentice formed ‘agencies' for the launch of a new brand of toilet tissue and went to Ogilvy for some help, he dismissed one team's fondness for ‘pretty pictures' advertising.
Ranked 92nd in the latest Sunday Times Rich List of Britain's wealthiest folk, Sugar is not a man to suffer fools gladly. But like him or not, he can seldom be ignored