Bill's back -- and he's all fired up
Bill Cullen's impressive business record and natural demeanour have helped make the Irish 'Apprentice' a hit, and the third series is even better, he tells Paul Whitington
TV3's version of 'The Apprentice' returns to our screens this Monday for a third series, with legendary Dublin businessman Bill Cullen once again at the helm.
When I first heard that an Irish version of the show was being planned, I must say my hopes weren't high, and I wondered if the production values and slick editing of the original might get a bit lost in translation.
Not a bit of it, however, because the Irish 'Apprentice' is extremely well made, and our national tendency towards blather has made the interaction of the contestants if anything, even more entertaining than the British or American versions.
There's a salty Irish flavour to Bill's analysis of his contestants' failings, as well, and among his more winning catchphrases are "you're a spoofer" and "you're a chancer". Cullen takes no prisioners, is hard but fair, and is assisted in his judging by his partner, Jackie Lavin, and PR guru Brian Purcell.
When I spoke to Cullen on the eve of the new 'Apprentice' run, I asked him how a man who seems to have no shortage of other demands on his time had become involved in the show in the first place.
It all started, apparently, in an industrial estate in Bradford in the early 1970s. "Back in '73," he tells me, "the Suez Canal was closed and there was no oil in Dublin for months on end. I started converting cars to run on gas, and I was over in Bradford picking up bits and pieces of equipment when I came across this guy selling car radios out of the back of an old banger.
"It was Alan Sugar, and I ended up buying a load of radios off him. So it went on from there. I bought some of his Amstrad computers in the early '80s, the first ones in Ireland at the time, and then about five or six years ago I got a call from someone to say they'd got the franchise for 'The Apprentice' in Ireland and that Alan Sugar said he should talk to me.
"That person never managed to get it off the ground, but the idea intrigued me at the time because of the connection with Alan, so when Screentime and ShinAwil came along the next time, I said 'yes, I'm very interested'. And in a way it was right up my avenue because I do seminars with kids on how to get ahead when they leave school, and I have my own academy now, so I've always been interested in channeling people's potential."
For the ininitiated, 14 contestants convene at the start of each 'Apprentice' series and complete a series of tasks and challenges over the following 12 or 13 episodes in the hopes of persuading Bill and his panel that they're the ones who should be picked as the winning apprentice. The prize includes a contract at Renault Ireland worth €100,000 and the chance to work with and learn from Cullen.
It's up to him to sort the wheat from the chaff, and a strong work ethic comes pretty high on his list of requirements. "Working long hours, getting up early and working late at night, that's what prepared me for business, going the extra mile all the time, and that's what you look for in the contestants. Knowing how to sell is really important, and you look for a certain awareness as well, keep your eyes and ears open, don't be slacking around, never stand around doing nothing, find something to do all the time.
"I like people who push themselves, and have that positive, can-do attitude." In among these entrepreneurial paragons, however, will always lurk some spoofers, and Cullen admits he has his work cut out catching them. "In this new series we've just finished," he tells me, "we've a few spoofers, we've a few wafflers, and the thing about them is they've been watching the previous series very carefully, and learning.
They've recorded them all and they watch what Bill is doing and they watch what Jackie and Brian are doing and they look at the boardroom meetings again and again and try to figure out what I like and don't like and what's expected of them.
"I'd say to people in series one why shouldn't I fire you, and they wouldn't know what to say, but now they say, 'I'll tell you why you won't fire me', and they're all prepared for it. So we have to become sharper ourselves, and you'll see that very clearly in the next series. I love that because it's challenging me, and it's bringing out my instinctive replies, which some of them don't like. I get into a few rows with a few people, but that's me."
Cullen insists, though, that being on the show has been a positive experience for all the contestants. "Even when I'm sending them off home after firing them," he says, "I try to give them a bit of advice on what they need to pick up on, and it's fair to say that anyone who has gone through this series as a candidate, even if they're only there for one or two sessions, they've all told me they've gone away learning as much from that as they would have in a year's work."
And what of the two winners, former bridal-shop owner Brenda Shanahan, who won in 2008, and last year's victor Steve Rayner -- how have they fared in Cullen's employ? "Brenda has been great. She's a self-starter, she's proactive. She was like putting a fish into water, off she went, she did her first year with us in the garages, and now she's down in the hotel [the Muckross Park Hotel, which Cullen owns], working on the marketing side of it. She's great."
Last year's winner Steve Rayner is unlikely to forget his first day at work. After impressing Cullen with his natural sales ability in series two, Rayner arrived for work on January 4th this year in spite of a snowstorm that had dumped five or six inches of snow on greater Dublin. "When I called him in, he, said 'I'll just set up my computer' and I said 'never mind about your computer, we've work to do'.
"Our garage is up at the head office in Swords at the Airside auto mall, and so I explained to Steve that we had to go up and clear the pathways for people driving in and out. Here's your wellies, I said, here's your shovel, and off we go."
When a reporter and photographer from the 'Evening Herald' turned up to record Steve's first day at work, they took memorable photos of him and Bill clearing snow, which ran on the paper's front page.
"I got a call from a businessman two days later," says Cullen, "who was so impressed with Steve's attitude that he wanted to meet him. He got an order for 80 cars off the guy. Steve gave me that on the first day, and he'll never look back. He's got a dozen of the top companies in Ireland buying cars off him already."
With respect to Steve, however, the real star of last year's 'Apprentice' was the man they mostly called 'The Breffmeister'. "Breffny Morgan is a speical young man," says Cullen. "He is now the most popular man in Ireland as far as I'm concerned, because he's just so funny, he's so honest, he's so generous, he's a lovely fella. I always remember him telling me his definition of management: 'getting the right people around you, making sure you're at the big meetings, and then p**s off to the golf course and let them get on with it.'
"That was Breffny's style of management. He was a character -- but we've a few good characters in this new series as well ... "
'The Apprentice' starts this Monday, September 20, on TV3 at 9pm