The Apprentice star Claude Littner: ‘My wife gave up her career so I could work’

The Apprentice star Claude Littner: ‘My wife gave up her career so I could work’

Alan Sugar's right-hand man speaks candidly to Francine Wolfisz about his wife Thelma, putting career before family and why this year's candidates are 'the most irritating yet'...

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Claude Littner returns for the 15th series of The Apprentice
Claude Littner returns for the 15th series of The Apprentice

Forget the early starts, the pitches that go painfully wrong or the cringe-worthy negotiations. When it comes to pushing The Apprentice candidates to their limits, there’s only one thing worse than facing the wrath of Lord Sugar in the boardroom – and that’s coming face-to-face with his right-hand man Claude Littner for the most intense interview of their lives.

In the last 15 years, rarely has the Golders Green synagogue member held back on what he really thinks about Lord Sugar’s prospective business partners.

“You’re not a big fish, you’re not even a fish,” he sputtered at one. “Frankly, you’re a parasite,” he told another, while a third was informed his business plan was, simply put, “a bloody disgrace.”

So it was with some trepidation that I had an interview situation of my own with the legendary Mr Littner, ahead of the new series of The Apprentice, which begins tonight (Wednesday).

Fortunately I was the one throwing the questions at him – and as it turns out, Tottenham Hotspur’s former chief executive is surprisingly quite an amiable chap.

“I’m not that harsh, I’m really not,” smiles Littner, who has chaired a number of Lord Sugar’s companies over the past 30 years, including Amstrad International and Viglen. “I’ve got this terrible reputation and actually I’m quite nice. I don’t put the fear of God into the contestants on purpose, but when you come with a reputation, it’s just inevitable.”

For all his warm and fuzzy protestations, Littner does concede that this year’s 16 contestants – who include a self-confessed “pocket rocket” artisan baker,  a “cut-throat” librarian and a chartered engineer who “loves business more than sharks love blood” – have annoyed him so much that he “couldn’t wait for them to go.”

He explains:  “From my point of view, I’m normally completely dispassionate. I watch the candidates, day in day out and I don’t really care. However, this year I found them incredibly irritating – and as you go through, you’ll be irritated too. I guarantee it!”

Having marked his 70th birthday in May – for which he spent the day filming an episode of The Apprentice – Littner concludes he now has “a lower threshold of accepting nonsense” and joked that when it came to firing contestants on a weekly basis, “it was a shame we could only get rid of one.”

In the first episode of the new series, the hopefuls are whisked off to Cape Town, South Africa, where they are tasked with organising bespoke safari and vineyard tours for unwitting tourists.

Other tests set up for the candidates in the weeks ahead include a corporate away day on a steam train, designing a theme park ride, traveling to Finland for an advertising campaign and the ever-popular shopping task, where they must hit the streets of Oxford and Cambridge to purchase nine items.

“The job is that you don’t say anything and you don’t influence, as that would be unfair for the other team if you gave advice,” says Littner of his “physically exhausting” role as one of Lord Sugar’s advisors, alongside Karren Brady.

“Even though Alan is remote, he wants to know everything that’s going on, on an hour by hour basis, so Karren and I have to email him every hour to tell him who did what, who said what, who decided to do that. We are busy all the time.”

Hard work and 3am starts are of course something that Littner is neither afraid of nor unaccustomed to.

He has almost 50 years’ experience under his belt and five years ago the University of West London Business School, where he is a visiting professor, was renamed The Claude Littner Business School in recognition of his stellar career.

Looking back, he’s very much proud of what he’s achieved – but he recognises too that he couldn’t have done it without the support of Thelma, his wife of 43 years.

Baroness Brady, Lord Alan Sugar and Claude Littner. Photographer: Ray Burmiston

“If I look back at me, I was a nutcase. I just wanted to work,” says Littner candidly. “I didn’t want to take a holiday, because I was worried someone else might get ahead of me. I was obsessed with doing the job.

“I didn’t think I was making any sacrifices. The problem was my wife took the brunt of looking after the children. I took my path and was lucky enough to have a wife who would do that. She gave up her career and was wonderful looking after our two children and the house and doing all those things. I was lucky to have her.”

The grandfather-of-five adds: “I don’t think you can have it all. You have to decide on a path and I’m happy with the path I chose. The fact I couldn’t watch my children as much as I would have liked or that I was working abroad for many years is unfortunate and maybe selfish on my part – but I was the breadwinner, I wanted to provide for my family and for me the only way to do that was to work as hard as I possibly could.”

This year’s 16 hopefuls in The Apprentice

While Littner still leads a hectic pace today, he recognises having personally mellowed over the years, as has his relationship with Lord Sugar, who he now considers one of his closest friends.

“He was very much the boss and I was the chair or chief executive,” says Littner. “But over the years, our relationship changed, our families started getting together and now it’s completely different.”

As Littner beams while talking, I begin to realise that Claude Littner is not really the intimidating behemoth he’s been made out to be all these years. In fact, he’s more pussycat than roaring lion.

“Shh, don’t tell anyone,” he smiles and whispers. “My reputation will be ruined.”

The Apprentice returns on Wednesdays, 9pm, on BBC One

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