‘I funded a cou­ple of Jewish Care build­ings, but can’t re­mem­ber­what they’re called’

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ing deemed a schmoozer. “It’s kind of back­fired in my face re­ally. It hap­pens here in the of­fice — you come in the days af­ter the pro­gramme and no-one says a word.”

He notes: “Some­times the grand­chil­dren let rip and say: ‘Oh, you did this, you did that’. They must get com­ments about it at school.”

Last year, Sir Alan, who do­nated £200,000 to Labour in 2001, pub­licly de­fended his friend Lord Levy in the midst of the cash-for-hon­ours af­fair.

“I felt Michael was get­ting bad treat­ment. I de­tected he may be be­ing used as a scape­goat and be­ing hung out to dry. It needed some­one to speak up for him a lit­tle bit and say: ‘Hang on a minute, what’s he ac­tu­ally done? He didn’t put any cash in his pocket’. His big­gest prob­lem was blind de­vo­tion to Tony Blair.”

But Sir Alan ac­knowl­edges that Lord Levy, whose au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is be­ing pub­lished later this month, caused his own prob­lems. “Michael loved the air of be­ing in­volved with the gov­ern­ment and it did go to his head a lit­tle bit. He is a very nice and char­i­ta­ble man, but he got a bit car­ried away with him­self and per­haps his own self-im­por­tance. He en­joyed the el­e­va­tion of be­ing Lord Levy. While he never got any mone­tary gain from it, he en­joyed the as­so­ci­a­tion with the Prime Min­is­ter.

“At the end of the day, no-one re­ally knows how far back his friend­ship went with Tony Blair. But one thing for sure is that politi­cians use peo­ple. They need peo­ple to raise money. They know that Jews have got money. They find some­one who is ex­cel­lent at rais­ing money in the Jewish cir­cle, such as Michael was.

“Be­lieve me, there is the re­cip­ro­cal Asian friend they had who did the same for them. Michael got him­self into this trou­ble maybe by be­ing a bit too ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic. For­tu­nately, it all turned out to be noth­ing in the end.”

The youngest of four chil­dren, Sir Alan grew up in Hack­ney. “I was a post­war baby-boomer, I sup­pose. Or maybe a mis­take, you never know,” he jokes, re­fer­ring to the fact that he was born 12 years af­ter his near­est sib­ling.

Most of his fam­ily worked in the cloth­ing in­dus­try, but he was not tempted to fol­low. “As a child I was very me­chan­i­cal, mak­ing bikes and col­lect­ing crys­tal-ra­dio sets.” But it was when his par­ents bought him a tape recorder for his bar­mitz­vah that he be­gan to show a real flair for tech­nol­ogy.

“I con­nected crys­tal sets to it and had ra­dios blar­ing out in my bed­room in the flats where we lived. My fa­ther could never un­der­stand. ‘We never bought you a ra­dio, how did that work?’ And I said: ‘Well, this lit­tle thing here’.”

At school, he was good at science. “But I was for­tu­nate enough to not just be a bof­fin as I had this busi­ness in­stinct also.”

Leav­ing school at 16, his first job was work­ing as a civil ser­vant at the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion. He then be­gan sell­ing car aeri­als out of a van he had bought for £100. When he was 21, he started his own com­pany, Am­strad, an acro­nym of Alan Michael Sugar Trad­ing. His first ma­jor break­through came when he found a way to pro­duce stereo sys­tems more cheaply than those used by com­peti­tors. He moved early into the home com­puter mar­ket. At one stage, Am­strad’s stock was val­ued at more than £1 bil­lion.

In 2000, he was knighted for his ser­vices to busi­ness. He holds two hon­orary science doc­tor­ates. Last year, he sold Am­strad to Sky in a £125 mil­lion deal, leav­ing him as com­pany chair­man. With in­ter­ests now fo­cused on prop­erty — Am­sprop, an in­vest­ment firm owned by Sir Alan and con­trolled by his son Daniel — and Am­sair Ex­ec­u­tive Avi­a­tion, Sir Alan is ranked 92nd in the Sun­day Times Rich List.

But­thewealthap­pearsnot­to­have­g­one to­hishead.Heen­joysspending­time­with his fam­ily: his wife Ann — the cou­ple are cel­e­brat­ing their 40th wed­ding an­niver­sary this week­end — their three chil­dren and seven grand­chil­dren. The sec­ond eldest is to be bar­mitz­vah later this year.

He is a strong sup­porter of the com­mu­nity wel­fare char­ity Jewish Care. “I’ve funded a cou­ple of build­ings — I can’t re­mem­ber what they were called — and I bought them Sin­clair House or some­thing.” He is a for­mer chair of gov­er­nors at King Solomon High School, Es­sex, and do­nates his fee for The Ap­pren­tice to Great Or­mond Street Hospi­tal.

He main­tains his in­ter­est in Spurs, at­tend­ing ev­ery home game, which, he says, is as frus­trat­ing as ever.

“But it’s quite pos­i­tive. We are in Europe now. I think [chair­man] Daniel Levy runs that place very well. I think it has one of the best bal­ance sheets in the Premiership. It’s run as a busi­ness. If any­thing, Daniel Levy has con­tin­ued this kind of con­scious route of mak­ing sure that the thing is fi­nan­cially stable. We have seen the prob­lems that clubs can get them­selves into.”

Sir Alan’s ex­trav­a­gances ex­tend to own­ing four planes, a Rolls-Royce with the AMS 1 num­ber­plate and homes in Spain and Amer­ica. Con­trary to the im­age given by the im­pres­sive, sta­teof-the-art board­room in The Ap­pren­tice, Sir Alan’s own of­fice is un­ex­pect­edly mod­est, filled with fam­ily pic­tures and his framed busi­ness awards.

Has be­ing Jewish shaped his busi­ness ca­reer at all? “I re­mem­ber in my early days as a young busi­ness­man or even at school, go­ing back over 45 years or so, there was a feel­ing among the non-Jews that Jews seemed to stick to­gether and help them­selves.

“To be per­fectly blunt about it, yes, per­haps that is rel­a­tively true at low level, when you are a small-time busi­ness trader. But when it starts to get into big­ger types of busi­ness, there is a dif­fer­ent type of thing that kicks in some­times, I think.

“Us Jews, bless us, tend to not nec­es­sar­ily be that help­ful. Some­times, I have found, sur­pris­ingly, re­sent­ment if not envy among other Jewish busi­ness peo­ple, when you get to a cer­tain level. There is a more stand-off­ish type of feel­ing and I have ex­pe­ri­enced that quite a bit in the past where cer­tain ‘su­per Jews’ come in con­tact with each other.” He re­frains, how­ever, from iden­ti­fy­ing those “su­per Jews”.

Al­though Sir Alan says he has never di­rectly faced any an­tisemitism in busi­ness, he re­calls a time when he was aged 18 and start­ing a busi­ness, “where there was re­sent­ment among non-Jewish traders. That we [Jews] were a bit too sharp, a bit too fancy-free and a bit too fly. But on the other hand, there is great re­spect from a ma­jor­ity non-Jewish traders that we dealt with, with the open­ness and the ban­ter that went on. It’s bet­ter like that — to have a joke about it. That to me is quite fair open ban­ter and you can give back as well as you got.

“I never found any re­sis­tance what­so­ever. For­tu­nately, in the early 1980s, un­der the Thatcher regime, the at­ti­tude in the City be­came more open, not just to Jews but to any­body.”

Sir Alan prides him­self on hav­ing a strong work ethic. “It’s wrong for young peo­ple to start im­me­di­ately as­pir­ing to be Richard Bran­son, Bill Gates or Sir Philip Green. They should as­pire to those next up the peck­ing or­der. Some of the best lessons I ever learnt were from the two-man­band shop­keep­ers, who was very con­scious of his costs and profit mar­gins.” And he has more ad­vice for as­pir­ing ty­coons. “Don’t get too so­phis­ti­cated too soon,” he says. “Keep it sim­ple. I hope young peo­ple un­der­stand there is no fast-track. You don’t leap out of bed one Mon­day morn­ing and sud­denly be­come a Bill Gates. Th­ese peo­ple — the Bran­sons, the Gate­ses, the We­in­stocks [Lord We­in­stock, the for­mer head of GEC], all grafted. They knew what the grass-roots were.

“Your men­tors be­come greater as you be­come greater. Un­sung he­roes in my his­tory are small traders. So when I went to see a cus­tomer with a shop in Brick Lane [in Lon­don’s East End], he was God. He was the teacher and you would as­pire to him. But then you would over­take him, and your as­pi­ra­tions be­come higher up the peck­ing or­der un­til you as­pire to peo­ple like Lord We­in­stock or Ru­pert Mur­doch. It’s all rel­a­tive.”

All traces of the fa­mous brusque per­son­al­ity have by now dis­ap­peared. It is usual for him to con­clude in­ter­views with his trade­mark: “You’re fired”.

On this oc­ca­sion, he ends the ses­sion by al­most com­mit­ting the sin of shmooz­ing. “Was that all right?” he asks. “Okey dokey. Jolly good.” The Ap­pren­tice is on Wed­nes­days on BBC1 at 9pm

Sir Alan with the con­tes­tants in the cur­rent se­ries of The Ap­pren­tice. They are un­der huge pres­sure, he says

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