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.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

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.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

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.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

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.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

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

Rubbish

Freemium magazine launch

Paris

Biscuit

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

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14 thoughts on “The Apprentice: And the winner is …

  1. I’ll be there!

    Well done on another great series of recaps, and on picking the winner right from the off, Tim. The Apprentice itself was far less successful for me, though. I found myself getting very bored – the series is too long, the contestants too many, and, as I said over at unpopcult, given the result last night, largely irrelevant seeing as it was all about the nail file business from the start, as opposed to anyone’s performance. I’d have hired Susan if I had to hire anybody, as long as I could defer it for 5 years till she actually grew up.

    I actually felt a bit sorry for Helen – what she did in the boardroom was, as you say, transparent and desperate, and frankly idiotic. How could she possibly think that would work? She must have been so panicked and desperate to win that she couldn’t see straight, but Helen, it’s just a job. Not life or death. Go take a holiday and CHILL. OUT.

    I’m hoping the Juniors are a bit more clued up – certainly Tim and Arjun would have wiped the floor with this crowd.

    • Hey CJ. I agree that the formula needs some freshening up. Although the nature of the prize was different this year, the tasks were largely the same and so were the candidates. In previous years, Tom would probably have exited mid-season and Helen would have walked it – she was SO just a carbon copy of Stella from last year. A few more genuine entrepreneurs and a few less poseurs would be great. Okay, you need the sillies, but let’s not overdo it, eh?

      For me, they need more candidates like Susan and Me-Me-Melody. Both are genuine entrepreneurs with some business smarts, but both were also puffed up enough to make decent villains at times.

      In some ways, though, I thought this season was stronger than last year’s. Take Stuart Baggs out, and it was a pretty middling set of candidates. Here we had Jedi Jim and Me-Me-Melody and Susan the Incredible Sulk and Michael Sheen (I mean Tom) and Lisa Stansfield the Workaholic (Helen). It was a nice mix, but there was no Stuart or Tre or Raef or Michael ‘Kosher’ Sophocloes. Maybe Vince Disney might have been that character if he lasted a bit longer. We’ll never know.

      Speaking of Helen, I’m still shocked that she thought her last minute switch was a good idea. Given that and her attempt to oust Melody two weeks before, it really makes me wonder about her ability to cope with bad situations. She always came across as cool and composed – but then that’s easier to do when you’re always winning.

      I know what you mean about Susan. Have to admire what she has done, but I found her naivety was annoying. There’s one thing being inexperienced, but I just found her extremely ignorant of the world around her in general, and she had no idea how negative an effect she had on people at times. The sad thing was that hers was probably the least bad of the business plans. If she had been less wild with her numbers, there is definitely a nice little business there because the margins in skincare are enormous.

      You’re right, though. Tom basically had it sealed from day one.

  2. See, I thought her last minute switch was a very good, if too late, gambit. Karren had already said she was surprised Helen’s business plan didn’t play to her strengths – biscuits and pies – and it was clear that everyone hated the concierge idea. Lord Sugar even said he thought her newly-offered plan was extremely ‘shrewd’. Sadly for her, it was clear that he had already made up his mind. Actually, I think if she’s said she was going to set up ‘MyPy’ for real, he might have had second thoughts…

    • If it had been Helen’s first plan, it would have been a good move. But to my mind, to suddenly switch plans at the last minute came across as desperate, panicky and more than a little manipulative. If someone I was interviewing for a job tried a stunt like that on me, they would be straight out no matter what I thought of them.

  3. I wonder…does the MyPy concept belong to Helen? I bet the beeb has a clause in the contract that prevents anyone using any of the ideas from the series…

    As you said from the start, and many of us realsied later, Tom was the man. Always was. In reality the real challenger was not Helen, even though she was nominally the runner up, it was nail files or cosmetics for Lord Sugar. The business plans were a waste of time in the end. They were always likely to be except that I suspect that Susan could have made a better case that equally could have demonstrated some maturity. But whether Helen was ever going to have a plan that stood up to examination was always doubtful. I am not sure whether there is room in the high street for the type of bakery operation that she was planning. And concierge services…have you ever googled this? I have and there are quite a few. It is also a service offered by any number of credit cards.

    I long for kosher chicken moments. Or Pants Man. And we have swapped The Brand for The Bland. We need new tasks and new twists on the existing tasks. This time we were very heavy on new products and branding which I felt got a little repetitive. The kosher chicken was awesome and arose as it was the negotiation task abroad rather than the new products task. So there are some things from the past that can be recycled.

    But thanks again Tim…good blogs as ever.

    • Thanks John. I suspect you’re right about signing over naming rights and any other associated IP, or else contestants could abuse this quite easily.

      The format could certainly do with some shaking up in terms of tasks and candidates. Fans and critics alike have certainly been split down the middle – it’s either been brilliant or awful. And yet the ratings have been fantastic – a peak of 10.7m for last night’s final. I’m not sure quite how it might work, but I’d like to see the teams spend the entire season setting up a fledgling business, with each week focussing on a particular part of the process. So task one would be about coming up with the original concept, task two might be around product design, and so on up to the final which would see the teams launch their businesses. That way, every task would matter and tie in to the other tasks, rather than the ridiculous situations we get now where candidates focus on winning the task at all costs, with no care for the consequences (Jim’s multi-million pound ad campaign etc).

      Any thoughts?

      • I think that there are two things that I would like to see and I think that both could be accommodated.

        Longer tasks. Allowing the teams a week rather than two days to design, brand and launch a product would, I hope, take some of the luck away from it. This would be especially useful when teams get smaller. The biscuit task would be an example of that. Tom did not realise that he was designing a premium biscuit (nor for that matter did I know immediately that £1.99 was a lot as I don’t buy them). It would have allowed Zoe, PM to be involved in both production and design. The reinvestment task might have been interesting had it gone on at least another day. Time pressure may work well for for some tasks but not all.

        Furthermore, a longer time might allow for even more complex tasks. We would get more polished results and can really see who can pitch when they get a bit more preparation time. Maybe even tempt them with death by PowerPoint… We might even see more innovative thinking as more time should mean better results.

        This would then need a longer programme. Or, what about a programme on the task and then the boardroom the following day with a full hour devoted to each?

        I think it might be difficult to run with a coherent task from beginnning to end, but it might work.

        • I tend to agree that my idea of the single coherent task might be a bridge too far, but I agree that something which allows for more complex – or at the very least more realistic – tasks would be better. I guess it is a difficult balance for the producers, for whom the formula for success is 80% about the contestants and only 20% about the tasks themselves. The more serious/longer they make the tasks, the fewer stupid – I mean, entertaining – things the contestants will do. God forbid, they might even have time to make sensible decisions.

          Death by Powerpoint? Sweet Jesus, no. Can you imagine?

  4. Great blogging, as ever, Tim on the series.

    I quite enjoyed this season – I thought the contestants / interviewees were not a mad collection of nutters they normally were but I also think that the format is getting a bit tired.

    There seems to be no weight given to the winning of tasks, or any recording of performance as if these were merely stage rehearsals for the big event: in this case the resumé autopsy and business plan butchery. Helen, business plan aside, was the star performer in tasks alone and yet this count for nought. Tom, by contrast, was virtually dead weight in many tasks and he ability to lead was totally non-existent. But, he had – prior to The Apprentice – sold products at Boots and Walmart. He should have been given the investment 10 weeks ago rather that fannying about with the game show aspect of the show,

    Helen was a PA, with no business experience – except second-hand – yet had shown innate ability to get stuff done and lead a team. Was she an entrepreneur? Maybe not, but I think it is more interesting to see people without any prior knowledge of business or trade succeeding in the tasks rather that someone who has done all this before in real life. It doesn’t seem fair or create a dynamic.

    I thought for one mad moment he was going to give them the investment as a partnership. That would have been cool.

    I think it would be better to see candidates from ordinary trades, undiscovered talent, applying for the investment or role.

    • Thanks Shev. As ever, the candidates have provided ample material for blogging. And too many sleepless Wednesday nights as a result!

      I can’t decide whether the fact most of the contestants were a bit more normal than previous years was a good thing or not. On the one hand, we missed a larger-than-life character like Baggs the Brand or Tre Azam. On the other, we got to see two genuinely nice and talented people as the final two.

      As you rightly say, Sugar could actually have dispensed with the entire series and just offered the money to Tom on day one. Even though I’d been rooting for him all along, it was a bit of a crock that he won despite having a poor plan for a product which you know Sugar is never going to develop.

      Incidentally, the programme was economical with the truth about Helen’s (lack of) experience. Her most recent role was as an executive PA to the CEO (which is much more than just being a common or garden admin assistant), and she has held commercial roles both at Greggs and elsewhere, as her LinkedIn profile reveals – http://linkd.in/n1xJWv . I guess it just made for a better narrative to portray her as some kind of humble secretary made good. There I go, shattering the grand illusion again!

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