The Apprentice: Too many cooks leave teams in a pickle

Jane spent most of the episode pulling sour faces. Maybe she misses Maria? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk) Jane spent most of the episode pulling sour faces. Maybe she misses Maria? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

For their third assignment, the remaining 14 candidates on The Apprentice were given the task of creating a new condiment. Both teams attacked this with relish but soon ended up in a pickle as production problems left them playing ketchup. In the end, it was Phoenix who bottled it, and in the boardroom Lord Sugar quickly concluded that furniture retailer Michael Copp didn’t cut the mustard and fired him with the dreaded Digit of Doom™. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen …

Too many cooks spoil the ketchup

Adam showed what a charmer he’s not (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Gabrielle Omar wins this week’s Race to the Phone™ and informs the other candidates they are travelling to St Katharine Docks – now a trendy place for City types, but formerly where condiments (among other things) used to be shipped in to London. The task is straightforward enough: create and brand a new condiment, sell it to both the public and retail trade, and make as much profit as possible. Simples.

With Sterling having lost both tasks to date, it’s time to do the Apprenti-Team Shuffle™. Duane Bryan (the inventor of the Eco Press) and Nick Holzherr (winning project manager in week one) join Sterling, while Katie Wright the (Not So) Silent Assaasin™ is sent over to Phoenix, prompting market trader Adam Corbally to get in a cheap dig which stops just short of making the ‘loser’ sign on his forehead.

The Sterling girls vote for Duane as project manager over Gabrielle, while Katie gets the nod over Stephen Brady for Phoenix, but not before Adam has patronisingly warned her:

It’s very, very complicated. There’s a lot to take on.

It’s possible he was talking about how to programme the Sky+ box back at the Apprenti-Mansion™ but I don’t think so. As Judi Dench’s M once told Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond (in Goldeneye, I think), I rather suspect Adam is “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. Ricky ‘Even More Camp Than The Other Ricky Martin’ Martin is similarly disparaging about Katie’s abilities. Guys, don’t you know she’s a (Not So) Silent Assassin™? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Jane spent most of the episode pulling sour faces. Maybe she misses Maria? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Sterling decide to produce a high-end chutney, despite food manufacturer Jane ‘Let’s Sell A Million’ McEvoy‘s warnings that Armageddon will occur if they do so because it’s a saturated market. (Oh, come on, as if they’re launching a real product …) With a face from the Maria O’Connor school of exaggerated facial expressions, she reluctantly goes with the team’s wishes, and then launches into a tirade about salt content and other technical details. Duane stops her in mid-flow. Jane looks even more displeased.

Stephen could probably have benefitted from a spell-checker (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Meanwhile Phoenix are looking to make a mass-market Mediterranean-style ketchup, which Stephen brands Belissimo – yes, I know it should have two L’s – which he believes begins with a B, or possibly a V. I’m going out on a limb, but I’m guessing he doesn’t have a GCSE in Italian.

The naming of Sterling’s pineapple, chilli and ginger chutney is more convincing. After brainstorming ideas such as Spicy Nicey and Chucky Chutney en route to the design house in the Apprenti-Carrier™, Nick, Gabrielle and Jade Nash come up with InFusion. They like it. So do I.

The other half of both teams heads to Wilkin & Sons – purveyor of high-end condiments – in Tiptree, Essex. Their task is simple – first make a sample for trial in London, and then get on with production.

Biochemist turned recruitment manager turned professional wrestler Ricky heads up production for Phoenix. It doesn’t go well. One of their five batches has the wrong mix of ingredients, their ketchup coagulates and then Ricky decides to cross his fingers and toes and throw in the wasted batch in the hope of making things better. “It’s like boiling an omelette,” says Adam. I’m guessing he doesn’t do much cooking.

Jade drew a tough gig. “Now I want you to pretend we actually have a product to show you …” (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

At the other end of the factory, Sterling’s first batch is an inedible disaster after throwing in too many chillis, and they do not produce a sample in time. Thereafter, thanks to Jane’s expertise, the production process is exceedingly smooth. However, Nick, Jade and Gabrielle have to try to pitch their product to high-end grocer Partridges without (a) having tasted it and (b) any actual product – which earns them this week’s Don’t Try This In Real Business, Kids!™ Award. It’s a bit like being asked to sketch the Mona Lisa blindfold without ever having seen it before. Only harder.

Unsurprisingly the pitch is a disaster. It’s also a massive red herring, as no sales were at stake and there was no opportunity to change the product recipe after sampling anyway.

Phoenix have a product sample to show, but all this serves to do is to show how shoddy their overall branding and design are. They are pulled up on their misspelt name, and their packaging design – a red pepper on a plain white background – is beyond pathetic. Mind you, it was better than Stephen’s original suggestion of a Mediterranean sunset – because nothing says spicy ketchup like a sunset, right?

Sell, sell, sell! Or not, as the case may be

The following day both teams have ten hours to maximise their profits via a combination of consumer and trade sales. There are two key points here. Firstly, the margin on direct sales to consumers is always higher than when selling to trade, as you cut out the middle-man. And secondly, selling to trade may offer a lower margin but can generate more actual cash because you sell in large volumes. There’s a fine balance between the two.

In truth, there’s little to differentiate the teams here, although some individuals fare better than others. A few key observations:

Sincerity is clearly not Azhar’s middle name (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Phoenix:

  • Katie gets her strategy spot on. Realising they have to maximise profit on their limited stock, she shifts to a premium price and then allocates most of the volume to the retail team, giving the trade sub-team a smaller allocation (around 20%). It’s a textbook low-volume strategy.
  • Katie and Stephen employ a soft-sell approach at Westfield Stratford, but they do close a good number of deals. Katie’s clear pricing offer – £3,99 each or three for £10 – also encourages multiple purchases.
  • Leading the trade team, Michael is given a minimum price of £1.99 but turns down a sale because he won’t go to £1.95. It’s madness to walk away for the sake of 4p.
  • With their backs now against the wall, Michael’s trade team dumps 48 bottles for £40 – that’s 83p per bottle. Bet he wishes he’d accepted £1.95 now, eh?
  • Poor though the trade team are, they are not helped by the appallingly amateurish branding, which is hardly helpful to retailers who need the packaging to explain and sell the product for them.
  • Azhar Siddique tells the camera “I respect the PM’s decision” while simultaneously making it clear he doesn’t respect Katie at all. It’s the fact that he says it with a straight face that leaves me so incredulous. Does he really think we viewers are that stupid?

Sterling:

  • Duane’s strategy of splitting his stock 50:50 between retail and trade is also wise. Consumer sales are more profitable, but limited by volume. By focussing equally on trade sales, he ensures volume – albeit at a lower margin – but also generates enough revenue to cover their fixed production costs. It’s a textbook high-volume strategy.
  • Trade team Nick, Jade and Gabrielle do a fantastic job when they return to Partridges – with product this time – selling 300 jars. The unit margin may be low, but when you’re selling 300 units it still adds up. It’s a potentially task-winning deal.
  • Duane recognises that retail sales are drying up post-lunch, and quickly switches his sub-team to trade sales in Marylebone, a good target area for foodie products. As a result, his half of the team sell all their stock at a healthy average price of £2. Ker-ching!

Boardroom brouhaha™

Back in the boardroom, Phoenix agree that Katie led the team well, although Adam cannot resist the opportunity to big himself up:

I had a major role in the operation, as per usual.

Really? I thought all he did was boil omelettes?

Duane also gets approval from his team – except for Jane, who makes Victor Meldrew look like Mr Happy on happy pills. After staring pointedly at her shoes, when asked directly she reluctantly praises Duane while making it perfectly clear that she actually means “I wish someone had accidentally-on-purpose tipped him into a vat of that excessively chillied batch we first made.” Nick Hewer describes said batch as:

A dangerous and poisonous concoction. To be in the same room was to be in danger.

It’s just as well he didn’t see the gloop that was Belissimo. I wonder what the Italian for ‘Dangerous and Posionous Concoction’ is, though? Maybe I can trademark it …

Duane led Sterling to their first win (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Anyhow, it’s time to end the back-slapping and move on to the back-stabbing. Karren Brady states that Phoenix sold 305 bottles of Belissimo, making a profit of £585.56. However, Nick reveals that Sterling’s InFusion shifted 607 bottles – 300 of those were to Partridges alone – for a total profit of £1,028.68. So although Katie’s premium-price strategy did achieve a greater profit per bottle (£1.92 versus £1.69), it was nowhere near enough to offset their production shortfall and Sterling’s one massive trade sale.

That makes Duane and Nick the only two candidates with a perfect 100% record, while conversely Katie is the only one yet to win a task.

To the victors, the spoils: a day driving cars at Silverstone. To the losers, a day at the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ to work out why their fortunes have plummeted like a stone. Ricky comes a close second to Adam in the modesty stakes, saying:

The good things that happened were thanks to me. The bad things, the other guys … terrible.

More relevant is Tom Gearing‘s clinical dissection. The wine investor points to the production losses and Michael not pulling his weight in sales. Last season it was Tom Pellereau who, week after week, had a habit of consistently identifying the weaknesses in his team’s strategy. He did rather well in the end, didn’t he?

Katie performed well despite slipping to her third straight defeat (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Back in the boardroom, Tom adds – correctly – that the product’s branding was poor and not consistent with a premium positioning. Michael struggles to defend his actions coherently. The Ricky and Adam ‘we’re dead good, we are’ show is ripped to shreds by Sugar as he exposes all the shortcomings in the production process.

Ultimately, Katie is left with the easy choice of bringing Ricky and Michael back in with her, leaving Sugar, Nick and Karren to discuss the relative merits of the trio. Katie, they fear, is not forceful enough, Ricky was in charge of production, where there were key failings. And Sugar ponders exactly what Michael has done throughout the tasks so far.

Ricky’s defence is to claim that production was irrelevant because the team couldn’t sell all their stock anyway. This is – to use the technical term – bollocks, as the low volume forced Katie to push the prices up, making the product harder to sell. And as Karren points out:

You had too many people cooking and not enough filling. It was a complete mismanagement of the process.

Michael paid the price for failing to impress in either tasks or boardroom (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

She’s bang-on. The production team resembled a bunch of headless chickens at times, particularly when compared to Sterling’s smooth operation. Reverse the performance of the two teams in the factory, and the task result would almost certainly have been reversed too.

However, Michael does not help himself at all by meekly admitting he isn’t the best salesman in the world, which leads Sugar to question whether he’s out of his depth here. We know where this path leads, and although Sugar does toy evilly with Ricky, it’s fairly inevitable Sugar has decided that Michael can’t stand the heat and with one waggle of his Digit of Doom™ despatches him out of the kitchen.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, a disappointed Michael showed a refreshing lack of bombast:

I’m feeling a little bit frustrated with myself that I didn’t represent myself to the best that I could have. At the end of the day I’ve got a successful business outside of this, so I know what I’ve actually achieved already in life, so the future’s bright for me.

Good luck to him. He wasn’t the best candidate, but he was far better than some of the more self-aggrandising ‘characters’ who will undoubtedly survive deep into the process.

Michael’s firing was both right and wrong. He did underperform woefully on this task and had not banked enough credit in the first two tasks to give Sugar a reason to keep him. However, even if his sub-team had sold all their stock at the best possible price, they still would not have come close to Sterling’s total profit. It was the inefficiency of the production line – which fell short in terms of volume, pushed unit costs up and therefore eroded the team’s margins – and arguably the initial choice of a poorly differentiated, poorly branded, mass-market product which were the real causes of failure. On that basis, Ricky should have been fired and Stephen was lucky to escape being brought back into the boardroom. Katie, despite losing yet again, nonetheless impressed as project manager, and is gradually growing into the process. The likes of Adam and Ricky will underestimate her at their peril – her ‘assassin’ nickname is not far from the truth.

Now 13 candidates remain to fight for the chance to become Lord Sugar’s business partner. I doubt he’ll ever ask any of them to cook for him, though.

Next week: The Apprentice meets Scrapheap Challenge as the teams must source second-hand cast-offs and then sell them on. All together now … Any old iron? Any old iron? Any any any old iron?

The Apprentice continues on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC1. Companion programme The Apprentice: You’re Fired! airs immediately afterwards at 10pm on BBC2.

Link: BBC official website

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