Friday 17 January 2020

Richard Curran: 'With billionaire Alan Sugar, what you see on TV is what you get'

Alan Sugar chats with Richard Curran on the main stage at this year’s Pendulum Summit. Picture: Conor McCabe Photography.
Alan Sugar chats with Richard Curran on the main stage at this year’s Pendulum Summit. Picture: Conor McCabe Photography.
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Meeting billionaire Alan Sugar was always going to be a little intriguing. I was interviewing him live on stage at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin on Wednesday and was curious mainly about one thing: is he actually the same as he is on The Apprentice?

A consummate media and public performer, I thought I would learn more about him during a chat shortly before we took to the stage at the Convention Centre than during a one-hour conversation on stage. And I did.

Sugar, or Lord Sugar as he has been in the UK since 2009, is exactly the guy he is on The Apprentice. He is direct, not necessarily blunt, but very smart. Unlike almost any businessperson I have ever met, he didn't want to control the interview we were about to do. In fact, he wanted to do the opposite.

He didn't care what questions I wanted to cover and never asked to go over topics in advance. Instead, when I met him on the day, his primary concern was that we would be able to take as many questions from the audience as possible. Most businesspeople, even the most successful ones, are terrified of opening up questions to the floor, especially without any kind of filter, and the room had around 2,000 people in it.

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For Sugar, the more unscripted, uncontrolled audience participation there was, the better. The room was too big to simply have a roving microphone and besides, not everybody would feel confident enough to stand up with a mic in hand and ask one of the big beasts of British business a question in front of 2,000 others.

So we used an app which people downloaded to submit questions. Within about 10 minutes of taking to the stage, 160 questions had come in. People wanted to know everything from his views on Mourinho at Spurs to who would win an Apprentice TV final between him and Donald Trump. What industries would he buy shares in for the future? His answer to that one was the battery industry because of the expected explosion in electric vehicles.

While his openness to any kind of question from the public was refreshing, and very few chief executives have the confidence or desire to be in that situation, his tips for success in business were remarkably simple.

He advised people to stick to industries they know when it comes to investing. Avoid debt. Recognise when something has failed and be prepared to walk away. Always tot up your profit or loss every week.

Sugar is not one to hide his light under a bushel. He says if he was starting out in business today, instead of back in 1968, yes it would be different, but he has no doubt that he would be successful.

Unhappy at starting our on-stage interview just five minutes late, he had no problem staying on beyond the scheduled time if he could answer more questions that kept coming in from the audience.

Sugar was particularly vociferous about British politics and politicians. He cannot stand Jeremy Corbyn, especially because of his economic policies, described by Sugar as "communist".

He alleges Boris Johnson is a liar who should have gone to prison for what, he says, were the lies he told during the Brexit campaign. Despite being a remainer in the referendum, who believes Brexit will be very damaging for Britain, Sugar also felt the need to encourage people not to vote Labour, by effectively endorsing the Johnson-led Conservatives in the recent election.

It is an odd and apparently contradictory position to take, but Sugar probably reflected a common attitude among the British business community - that it was better to have a Conservative majority, capable of ending the Brexit parliamentary paralysis, while also stopping Corbyn.

Yet for all of his scepticism, sarcasm and bluntness, Sugar remains a classic optimist. He believes that while Brexit will be bad for Britain, and it will take a decade for the implications to really unfold, he doesn't think people should use that negativity to stop them doing things in business.

He believes something as bad as Brexit should not be the reason to withdraw or not do things, but to just pick which investments you make more carefully.

He doesn't sugar-coat anything but speaks his mind. I might not agree with that much of what he puts out in sound bites or on Twitter. He likes his rants and having a go. But, refreshingly, he seems willing to debate with anybody about anything.

Willie Walsh will be a hard act to follow at IAG

One man who always took a more modest approach to his achievements is IAG chief executive Willie Walsh. The man nicknamed 'the slasher' for his cost cuts at Aer Lingus is retiring from IAG 15 years after he became CEO of BA and then the group holding company he helped to create in 2011.

Trade unionists might not be lamenting the departure of Walsh, who went through enormous rationalisation and cost-cutting no matter where he went.

But his overall record on financial performance speaks for itself.

As CEO of Aer Lingus from 2001 to 2005, the company shed between 2,000 and 2,500 staff. There had already been huge reductions in staff numbers at BA before Walsh took over in 2005.

His BA predecessor, Rod Eddington, had overseen many of the 18,000 job losses there in the six years before Walsh took over.

Yet, just two months into the role as CEO of BA, the former Aer Lingus pilot announced 600 job losses in management and a two-year financial plan that would cut costs by £450m (€529m).

Despite this track record of headcount reduction, he always managed to turn things around and put companies in a position to compete, expand and keep hiring.

This was especially true when BA took over Spanish carrier Iberia. The airline was losing £1m per day and a major cost-cutting programme was needed in what was a heavily unionised business.

This was tough medicine for the loss-making airline and Iberia ended up shedding 4,500 jobs following the BA takeover.

At one stage while at BA, trade unions wanted Walsh to step aside from industrial relations talks, and believed more progress would be made if the BA finance director stood in instead.

Yet, the IAG model, which he put together, worked. Last year, the group which owns BA, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus made profits of £3.2bn. This was despite a very damaging strike at BA which saw the cancellation of 2,325 flights and cost the airline £121m.

There was a lot more to Walsh than slashing costs. You can only judge his legacy of cuts by speculating where those airlines would be now, had the cuts not been made.

Apple to receive special award from Varadkar. What's up?

The Taoiseach is to present a special award to Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, in Dublin. It is to recognise the tech giant's 40-year presence in Ireland and its contribution to the economy here.

The 40-year anniversary isn't the only relevant timing issue though. It comes as both the Government and Apple are fighting on the same side in the European courts to appeal against the European Commission's €13bn illegal state aid finding.

It also comes after Apple pulled out of a data centre project due to delays in the planning process. We have since seen changes to the planning laws.

It also comes as international tax changes are expected which could see Ireland's corporation tax take fall. US companies are shifting large sums and intellectual property ownership back home.

Apple deserves recognition for its contribution to the Irish economy, but is there a buttering up going on too? If so, just what is the Government worried about?

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