Lord Alan Sugar’s new right-hand man is fearsome Jewish businessman Claude Littner. He tells Francine Wolfisz about his ‘exhausting’ role on The Apprentice, competing with Karren Brady and the secrets to success.
Finally, after avidly watching The Apprentice over the last 10 years and shaking my head in bewilderment at the backstabbing, one-upmanship and egos bigger than an Airbus A380, I found myself having something in common with Lord Alan Sugar’s candidates: coming face to face with the indomitable Claude Littner and, like the fallen before me, the experience certainly got me hot under the collar.
The 66-year-old Jewish businessman, who has formed a reputation for grilling contestants with his forthright interview technique on the popular BBC One show, met me for an early morning chat before the first episode of the 11th series, which aired on Wednesday night. And what was for breakfast? Me, apparently.
Taking him to task over the many candidates he has made quake in their boots over the years, I asked Littner – who replaces Nick Hewer as Sugar’s adviser in this series – if there was anything he himself was afraid of. “Don’t think so,” he replies, with a steely stare so potent that, had he possessed the same powers as Superman, he probably could have obliterated me from the room altogether.
“What about losing money?” quips Lord Sugar, hoping to lighten the air. But Littner simply shakes his head. “Wouldn’t happen.”
Having asked the icebreaker – or perhaps in this case, the ice maker – we turn to simpler matters, such as his new role as an adviser on the series, alongside Baroness Karren Brady. Does he, for example, feel more of an emotional connection to the candidates now that he is out and about with them, rather than sitting behind a desk, tearing apart their CVs and business plans?
“It’s very difficult, because I don’t tend to get emotional about anything,” he responds with an almost wry smile. “I’m there as an observer. I’m not their friend, I’m not trying to tell them what to do. It’s just basically observing, trying not to show any emotion at all and then reporting back.”
But that’s not to say he’s completely devoid of any emotion towards the candidates – quite the opposite in fact, as he talks about how exhausting the process actually is for both himself and Lord Sugar’s apprentices, particularly with the 5am starts and late nights trying to work on such tasks as creating shampoo advertising campaigns, selling pet products or producing a new health snack.
The life-long member of Golders Green Synagogue, who lives in north London with his wife Thelma, reveals: “Nick said last year that he found the process exhausting. I was certainly concerned the physical aspect of it would be a challenge.
“But don’t underestimate the difficulty for the candidates. They are under scrutiny all the time, they are under stress and they have to work by themselves and in teams. It’s no wonder they come up with silly ideas. It is tough physically. There’s no doubt about it – they are pushed very hard.”
Littner, who is the current chairman of Sugar’s IT company, Viglen and former chief executive of Tottenham Hotspur, started off his impressive business career after training as an accountant.
Speaking about young people today, he said: “They are generally hard-working and want to get on.” He adds: “The economy is different today and it’s harder to get employment. But I have found young people clever, more up for work and willing to start their own businesses. There has been quite a sea change in young people’s attitudes towards the world of work.”
Sugar, 68, agrees with his right-hand man, whom he has known for 25 years. He remarks: “A lot of young people aspire to be a Zuckerberg and that’s a trillion to one chance. But I am happy with the general enterprise culture we have in the UK at the moment.”
That resurgence in entrepreneurial spirit is partly down to The Apprentice, says Sugar, because it has inspired people to start up their own companies with very little funds or, as in the case of the eventual winner, a much larger business for a £250,000 investment. Last year’s winner Mark Wright has now started to turn a profit for Climb Online, a digital marketing agency to support small companies, while 2011 winner Tom Pellereau has brought two of his inventions – a curved nail file and nail clippers for babies – into the marketplace.
The Apprentice has not only proven a hit with entrepreneurs however – audience figures last year topped nearly seven million when series 10 opened and this year is expected to do just as well. So why exactly is the show such a draw for the telly-viewing public?
“I’ll tell you what it is. We’re not interested in gimmicks. If it’s not broke, don’t try and fix it,” replies Sugar. “The reason why The Apprentice keeps the ratings is simple: the candidates. They are the ones that provide compelling viewing. It’s the uncertainty of what they will do and say that makes it the great programme it is.” Even Littner has finally broken into a smile and enthuses about the show, calling it “exceptional”.
He adds: “Everybody plays a full part, that’s what makes it exceptional viewing. Karren has also been incredibly helpful to me and in fact I was really challenged. Because she’s so good, I just found I had to be on my mettle all the time to keep up with her. It’s a fantastic series, there’s no question. It’s been a privilege to have been involved with it since the beginning.”