The Apprentice: And the winner is …

After twelve weeks of bragging, bitching and blarney, we finally know the winner of season seven of The Apprentice. Lord Sugar deliberated, cogitated and digested – or is that a different programme? – and eventually decided that Tom Pellereau‘s business plan for solving back pain was the most investable idea of the four finalists, and that Jim Eastwood was just a pain in the neck, with the two female finalists – Helen Milligan and Susan Ma – somewhere in between.

But while Tom runs off to get new business cards printed, let’s take a look back on the interview process which constituted this year’s final. Sugar’s hand-picked group of rottweilers sadists interrogators includes two familiar faces and two new ones:

  • Claude Littner: Sugar’s former global business troubleshooter. A bit like John Harvey-Jones, but without the hair or the waistline.
  • Margaret Mountford: Karren Brady‘s predecessor, much-loved Queen of the Arched Eyebrow™ and now involved with the Bright Ideas Trust, a charity set up by original Apprentice winner Tim Campbell to foster young entrepreneurs.
  • Mike Soutar: Pioneer of the free magazine industry. Despite Natasha ‘Yeah’ Scribbins‘ assertion that porn sells, none of his titles are top-shelf material.
  • Matthew Riley: Founder of the £300m telecoms Daisy Group and the 2007 Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Like Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs, only successful. And the winner of a rare award not also held by Me-Me-Melody™ Hossaini.

Their primary task is to eviscerate the candidates with the kind of questioning which makes the Spanish Inquisition look like a fireside chat with your gran. And to critique the candidates’ CVs and business plans. Apparently. Candidate by candidate, here are the key soundbites from each interview, and a summary of their subsequent evaluation back in the boardroom.

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Helen Milligan

Even before the interviews begin, we have a soundbite of Helen referring to her business plan as “a bit of a new idea”. (As opposed to a lot of an old idea, presumably?) Sadly, her business plan involves setting up a personal PA/concierge service – which is hardly a new idea at all.

Matthew is sceptical about her business model and whether the need truly exists in a world where dentists send you text messages to remind you about appointments. (The only things my dentist ever sends me are bills and the number of a good personal loans company.)

Helen, does however, give us a genuine comedy moment when Mike asks her to demonstrate that she’s human by telling him a joke. She splutters, asking for more time, before eventually coming up with:

A fish is swimming along and he swims straight into something and he goes “Oh, dam.”

Against his expectations, Mike laughs. And so do I. But it says a lot that this is the first time in the entire process we have seen Helen as anything other than a career-driven robot.

Claude is less amused. He tells her her idea is anything but original, to which Helen says this is a market which has no market leader – and she intends to be just that with her national franchise model. But here’s the thing: the reason there is no market leader is that no one has ever been able to successfully scale it up. It is, as the interviewers correctly identify, a people business which depends on local networks of contacts and cannot be easily standardised. That, and it is also a relatively low value-added service for which people will not pay large amounts, which makes it impossible for the numbers to ever stack up as a franchise model. It can work as a personal lifestyle business, but no more than that.

Back in the boardroom, Margaret slams Helen as “a hard worker but with no entrepreneurial flair”, and dismisses her business plan as “deeply flawed”. Matthew is kinder, but incisively states what I have been saying for several weeks: that you would employ her tomorrow (i.e. as an old-style Apprentice) but wouldn’t go into business with her. Mike suggests her franchise model is “optimistic”. In other words, it has about as much chance of working as I do of winning a Princess Leia lookalike contest. Even though I do like quite good in a gold bikini.

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Jim Eastwood

Jim’s big idea centres on providing employability skills to schools via e-learning, a business he sycophantically brands AMSmart. Which is a whole lot better than AMShit, I suppose. Nonetheless, it is a transparent attempt to appeal to Sugar’s ego while trading off his name.

Mike sees right through Jim from the off, noting his application is “packed with clichés and buzzwords and blarney” and bemusing him utterly when challenging him to describe himself succinctly. It is the first time we have seen him at a complete loss for words.

Margaret doesn’t spare the horses either as she reviews some of the statements on his application:

I must say I’ve never seen a longer application form. “I’m not a show pony, or a one-trick pony, or a wild stallion that needs to be tamed, or even a stubborn mule. I believe I can become the champion thoroughbred that this process requires.” What impression does that give me of you – that you’re a bit of an ass?

Oh, Margaret, how we’ve missed you and your impeccable comic timing! At least Jim didn’t say he could talk the hind legs off a donkey …

She then asks him how he sets himself apart, and suggests he may have done it by swallowing the Oxford Book of Clichés. When asked to say something about himself without resorting to clichés, a shellacked Jim can only respond:

I’m exactly what it says on the tin.

Exactly what does it say on the tin, Jim? “Biggest Bullshitter in the World”? Or how about “I don’t like clichés – they’re not my cup of tea”?

Mike repeatedly presses Jim on his research into his idea. Finally, when asked for the 27th time about whether he has spoken to any school head teachers about the viability of his idea, he concedes:

I haven’t divulged the nature of the e-learning.

Which, I think, translates as “no”. I’ve heard more straightforward answers from politicians.

In the boardroom, Mike picks up on Jim’s evasiveness, likening trying to pin him down on details to nailing custard to the ceiling. Which would go very well with Nick Hewer‘s previous comment about nailing jelly to a wall. Or nailing Evil Edna the Control Freak Über-Bitch from Hell™ Agbarha to a cross. And while Claude likes the e-learning angle, Nick suggests his whole idea is “one long seduction letter” to Sugar.

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Susan Ma

Susan’s idea is essentially an expansion of her existing business, bringing her 100% natural organic skincare range to a mass market.

When Matthew asks her to give a brief elevator pitch, Susan’s (heavily edited) response is not so much an elevator pitch as a take-the-elevator-up-to-the-top-of-the-Empire-State-Building-take-some-leisurely-tourist-photos-and-then-come-back-down-pitch. It’s an issue we have seen with her before – she is to clear and concise what I am to temperance and Slim-Fast.

Margaret draws out a description of her entrepreneurial nature: how she started working for a man in Greenwich market, sold a load of gear in a weekend and then decided she could do that for herself, raising the money to help put herself through university. It’s all going very well until she admits she paid staff to work for her at a show in cash, paying no National Insurance and no tax. At which point Margaret halts the interview to call Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

Things get worse when Claude quizzes her on her highly optimistic first year forecast of £1.3m profit, going up against some rather large cosmetics companies. Matthew also grills her on her blasé assumptions and lack of costings for technical and legal approvals for her products.

It’s clear by now that Susan will make her million-plus profit by selling illegal, uncertified products and avoiding tax and National Insurance payments. And winning the National Lottery. It’s not so much a business plan as a wish list that makes a five-year old’s letter to Santa look hopelessly unambitious. We have seen this kind of naivety from her a number of times before, but she has never really been called out for it before – until now.

In the boardroom discussion, Claude balances the fact she has set up her own small business against her naivety. Margaret calls her a true entrepreneur, while Mike points out that her wild financial projections – year one sales of £4.5m, profits of £1.3m – are the result of “a series of small assumptions that just multiplied”. Honestly, I’m surprised that Susan didn’t claim that she would make enough profit to solve the sovereign debt crisis and pay for my next visit to the Apple store.

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Tom Pellereau

Tom’s somewhat curious plan is a business which involves going into companies and assessing their employees’ risk of suffering from back pain, and then selling them specially designed chairs to combat it. Yes, it’s a bit weird.

Claude is straight into attack dog mode, asking Tom if it would be fair to categorise his career as floundering and then pulling him up on his error-strewn business plan. Poor Tom gets an absolute savaging.

Mike points out that his plan, which is dependent on selling chairs, doesn’t actually contain the word ‘chair’ in it anywhere. Oops.

In quizzing him about why he hasn’t done more with his curved nail file and the product variants he has already developed, Matthew discovers that Tom lost interest and moved on to the next thing, allowing him to pin the ‘never finishes anything’ badge on him. I can entirely sympathise with Tom, as someone who has a habit of forgetting to finish thi … Er, where was I?

During the interviewers’ evaluation, Matthew brands Tom ‘the mad professor’ – Professor Pellereau? – although personally I see him more as Professor Pat Pending from Wacky Races. He warns that Tom would be busy inventing something every other week, and Mike chips in with his concerns about a lack of focus. Claude, stickler that he is, is worried about all his business plan numbers being wrong. However, Karren does point out that, of all the candidates, he would benefit most from Sugar’s input and guidance.

The final boardroom

With the interviewers dismissed, the four finalists are brought back into the boardroom for the final time for Sugar to tell them how silly their plans are. He rightly points out to Susan that in the highly competitive cosmetics market, his £250k investment would be a drop in the ocean compared to the kind of money L’Oreal and Revlon throw around. He queries why Helen’s plan is to move into an area she doesn’t really know. He tells Tom that his entire plan is flawed, and that no one will pay for his back pain evaluation service. And he pulls Jim up for putting together a plan which trades primarily off Sugar’s reputation rather than on its own merits.

He also fires off one ill-advised attempt at humorous punnery:

Tom, maybe there is some legs in offering a chair.

Oh, how we laughed. And then he fires Jim, in fairly perfunctory fashion. The champion thoroughbred is gone, although we do not get to see whether he departs in the usual Taxi to Obscurity™ or something more fitting such as a horse-drawn carriage.

Sugar moves on to Helen, saying:

I cannot express my disappointment in your business plan.

Although I think you’ll find you just did, Alan. Of course, that means he then fires Susan, the height of whose coherence is to say:

I’m saying that I understand that I didn’t understand.

Which reminds me of a whole host of Yes Minister scenes which were much funnier.

Of course, Sugar has already made up his mind, but just to keep the tension ratcheted up he sends Tom and Helen outside while he consults with Nick and Karren. He muses that Helen would be a shoo-in if this was the old format, while Nick sings Tom’s praises for being a likeable fellow with a good product. After being brought back in, a panicking Helen commits a cardinal sin by trying to switch to her secondary business plan of setting up a homemade bread/cake bakery chain. (Maybe she could call it MyPy?) It is a transparently desperate, under-hand and poorly thought through move. You can’t just circumvent a bad job interview by saying, “Look., I know I was rubbish, but I was actually applying for this job. Can I have it?”

It confirms her fate, and the final nail is hammered in (to the jelly? the custard?) when a new piece of evidence is suddenly introduced in the form of the story of how Tom managed to wangle his way in to successfully pitch to Wal-Mart, showing the inner strength and determination which he has so often been accused of lacking over the past 12 weeks.

It’s all over. Helen, the candidate with the best task record (ten wins, one loss) has been well and truly turned over by Tom, the man with the worst record of all the finalists (three wins, eight losses). He’s hired! Although I can’t help but feel that Sugar is more interested in the commercial possibilities of extending his curved nail file range and developing other new products, rather than trying to sell his half-baked back pain-curing chairs. We shall see.

Tom emerges from the boardroom with an endearing yelp and air-punch, and clambers into Sugar’s Rolls-Royce to give his winner’s soundbite:

No longer is Lord Sugar sitting on the other side of the table. We’re now on the same piece of paper. At Companies House, we’re registered with the same company. I just can’t wait to open for business.

16 candidates: one winner. Lord Sugar’s search for his business partner is over. And so is my Apprentice season seven recap series. Thanks for sticking with it. See you soon for Junior Apprentice?

Link: BBC official website

Episode reviews:

Season 7 preview

£250 business start-up

Mobile phone application

Discount buying for the Savoy

Beauty treatments

Create, brand and launch a pet food


Freemium magazine launch



Flip it

Fast food chain

Whatever happened to the previous Apprentice winners?

Season 1: Tim Campbell

Season 2: Michelle Dewberry

Season 3: Simon Ambrose

Season 4: Lee McQueen

Season 5: Yasmina Siadatan