The Apprentice: And the winner is …

This year's final four (left to right): Nick Holzherr, Jade Nash, Ricky Martin and Tom Gearing (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk) This year's final four (left to right): Nick Holzherr, Jade Nash, Ricky Martin and Tom Gearing (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

WARNING! Contains spoilers

16 candidates, but only one winner. After 11 weeks of challenging and often hysterically bad task performances, the four finalists face their toughest challenge: the interviews. Four gruelling interrogations which make the Spanish Inquisition look like a Daybreak interview, as the finalists face the kind of questions which no right-thinking HR manager would ever approve in the real world.

And at the end of it all, Lord Sugar pointed not his customary Digit of Doom™ but the Index Finger of Investment™ at … Ricky Martin, whose well-targeted but conservative plan to set up a niche scientific recruitment company carried the day over Tom Gearing‘s ambitious but risky fine wine hedge fund.

This year’s final four (left to right): Nick Holzherr, Jade Nash, Ricky Martin and Tom Gearing (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Here’s how Lord Sugar arrived at his decision to go into business with the wrestler nicknamed ‘The Fitness’.

Meet the rottweilers

The candidates are given 48 hours to familiarise themselves with their business plans – which seems a bit odd, as you’d think they would know them pretty well already. But no. If you believe the montage which follows – and, of course, I believe everything I see on TV – they are only just starting to create their documents now, and haven’t previously had to submit them. Oh no.

Anyhow, two days later the candidates leave the Apprenti-Mansion™ for the last time and are whisked by Apprenti-Carrier™ to the Institute of Directors. There Sugar asks each candidate to summarise their proposed businesses on the spot. So we learn that:

  • Nick Holzherr wants to develop an online platform which consumers can use to purchase all the ingredients they need for any recipe with a single click.
  • Tom Gearing plans to set up a hedge fund based on fine wine.
  • Jade Nash will set up the UK’s largest outbound telemarketing call centre.
  • Ricky Martin‘s idea is an ethical niche recruitment organisation which specialises in scientific sectors.

So far, so good. Anyway, Sugar’s group of four rottweilers sadists interviewers is the same as last year’s final, namely:

  • 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 involved with the Bright Ideas Trust, a charity set up by original Apprentice winner Tim Campbell to foster young entrepreneurs.
  • Mike Soutar: One of the pioneers of the free magazine industry.
  • Matthew Riley: Founder of the telecoms company Daisy Group (worth £350m), and the 2007 Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Like Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs, only successful.

Their primary task is to eviscerate the candidates for our entertainment. And, while they’re at it, to critique the candidates’ CVs and business plans. Apparently. Candidate by candidate, here are the key soundbites from each interview.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Jade Nash

Claude, who is to gentle questioning what the Terminator was to peaceful issue resolution, goes straight for the jugular, telling Jade he’s underwhelmed with both her CV and her plan, and referring to her proposed business as “pretty grubby” and “a bit unsavoury”. (Would that make it a Sweet Thing, though?) The criticism is warranted, though, as her plan contains no cash-flow statement, no balance sheet and promises to generate turnover without any overhead costs – a business model which is akin to turning base metals into gold.

Matthew digs into her academic background and confronts her about getting an N grade in her business A-level. (I thought you got an E just for turning up and spelling your name correctly?) Jade tries to pass off an “oh, that thing?” look as if it’s nothing. It’s not. She’s been caught out and she knows it.

And Mike also catches her out by revealing that he has himself bought one of the four domain names she wants to trade under. D’oh!

Margaret focuses on the fact Jade had already had six different jobs. She cobbles together an answer trying to say this just reflects her ambition, but it’s not overly convincing. A bit like both her other interviews and her business idea, which strikes me as being a model 10-15 years past its peak, given the boom in email and social media marketing.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Nick Holzherr

Nick immediately escapes with an error which Margaret skewered Stuart Baggs with at his interview: calling her ‘Margaret’.

Claude dismisses Nick’s well-presented plan as looking too ‘academic’.  (Would it have been better if he’d scrawled it on the back of a fag packet and missed out key elements like Jade?) He also raises concerns over Nick’s claims that his ingredient-purchasing tool will be essential, dismissing it as an irrelevance with what amounts to a Catherine Tate-style “Do I look bovvered?” Nick stands his ground, saying it has the potential to become a Google or a Facebook, but it’s clear he’s not going to win him over. With a casual “Dream on” – the kind of withering dismissal with which he would probably have treated that Mark Zuckerberg fellow – Claude squashes Nick.

Matthew’s line of attack is different, but no less damaging. He asks why Nick is trying to set up a third business when his existing mobile barcode platform is already growing successfully. He’s labelled as lacking focus.

Margaret pokes into his unorthodox childhood, in which he grew up without television and didn’t have a computer until he was 16. Nick claims that:

Not having it made me want it more.

He’s talking about PCs, people, not sex. At least I think he is.

Mike questions whether Nick’s projected year five return of £145m is in any way realistic. It’s a damaging question, but also unfair. Online business models tend to be boom or bust. Yes, there is an extremely high likelihood of failure. But when one succeeds, the returns are immense. Facebook’s recent flotation had it initially valued at over $100bn while, closer to Nick’s idea, recipe website allrecipes.com was recently bought for $175m. Nick was never guaranteeing a huge return, but his projection was probably not unreasonable if it really took off.

Overall, Nick has been given a pretty rough ride by the four interviewers – not without some justification, but rougher than was merited.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Ricky Martin

Margaret quizzes Ricky on the way he refers to himself as Thor and how he will take over Sugar’s empire, as well as responding to his claim that he has replicated elements of Sugar’s career, which elicits one of her famed wide-eyed, arched-eyebrow looks. But, as we have seen in the boardroom in previous weeks, he defends himself well. And, as he showed in the way he and Tom readied themselves for their pitch in last week’s affordable luxury task, he has clearly prepared himself for the more obvious barbs which are being thrown at him.

His application and personal statement have also clearly caused a similarly nauseating effect on both Matthew and Claude, with the former opening up with:

There’s just so many things in [your application] that basically made me want to be sick.

While Claude is positively rubbing his hands with glee as he says:

I’ve been looking forward to this encounter. Your personal statement … frankly is probably the most crass, obnoxious, infantile personal statement that I’ve ever had the – not really a pleasure – opportunity of reading.

But in both cases Ricky turns a potentially disastrous start around, pointing out to Matthew that he has a credible background with his biochemistry degree and five years’ relevant experience in scientific recruitment, while telling Claude that his application boasts were mere bravado to help him stand out from the pack (completely plausible) and that he is a different person at the end of the process to how he was at the beginning (also credible). Indeed, Claude goes so far as to admit he likes his business plan and his career progression to date. Against the odds, Ricky has neutered Sugar’s most vicious attack dog.

Mike questions whether he is more show business than real business, but there’s not much rope with which to hang Ricky with here given recent task performances. Indeed, throughout his interviews Ricky comes across as professional, well-prepared and having researched his business model with painstaking care. It’s a far cry from the jokey, soundbite-heavy Ricky we saw in the early weeks.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Tom Gearing

Initially it looks like Tom is in for a hard time when Mike learns he has never had a job interview before – at which point his eyes light up. He starts by reading out a glowing reference from Tom’s father (a director in his wine investment firm), asks how much of the business plan he wrote for him and whether he’s just “a daddy’s boy”. But the youngest finalist (at 23) holds up under fire with the calm he exhibited throughout the tasks. The gruff Soutar ends up congratulating him on his “very sophisticated business plan”.

Margaret’s clip with Tom is brief and centres on the section on his application where he says he was a ‘BNOC’ (Big Name on Campus) at Nottingham University. There’s a weak joke from her about whether the N actually stands for something else, which really is beneath Margaret’s standards. More amusing is the unspoken-about line just below it on the form where Tom writes that people think he looks like Olly Murs. Fortunately he doesn’t ask Margaret to Dance With Me Tonight. A narrow escape, that.

Claude’s interrogation is less whimsical. He questions Tom’s plan to raise £25m of investment and notes this is a big jump for such a young man with minimal track record, but Tom points out he has already established demand for his product. After a bit of yes-I-can-no-you-can’t, Claude closes down the argument by saying Tom can’t raise the required money. That may ultimately be true, but it’s no more than his opinion and a fairly weak dismissal. I expect better from Claude.

Matthew’s line of questioning is more reasonable, focussing on the level of risk in Tom’s idea, but his response that attaching Sugar’s name to the project lends it credibility and will help bring other investors on board is spot on. Overall, Tom has handled himself well.

The final boardroom

The boardroom begins with Sugar conferring with his interviewers. The idea of investing in a call centre making intrusive marketing calls is greeted with no enthusiasm, and Jade’s flawed business plan is criticised. Ricky is praised for his straightforward, targeted idea, drawing the following jaw-dropping admission from Claude:

Before I met him I spent a sleepless night with excitement as to how I was going to rip him apart. However, in truth I’m mesmerised by the guy.

Maybe Claude is having visions of Ricky in his wrestling lycra?

Claude reiterates that Nick’s business plan looked too much like an MBA project than a real business – what the hell does that mean, anyway? – while the optimism of his projected returns is also dismissed as pie-in-the-sky.

As for Tom, Mike points out his idea is high risk but also potentially high return – echoes of the street art task – while Matthew supports the view that he is a risk-taker. Tom? Risky business? Come on, who else flashed back to this classic old Tom Cruise clip from the film Risky Business? (It can’t just have been me, right?)

Claude dismisses him because of his youth, but Karren Brady jumps to his defence, pointing out that at 23 she was already running a football club (Birmingham City). And Matthew adds Tom’s business plan was one of the best he has ever read. But Claude will not let go, saying he needs to tone down his ambition. Hang on, isn’t the whole point that Sugar is looking to go into business with an entrepreneur who has genuine ambition?

The interviewers leave and the candidates enter. Sugar mulls over the pros and cons of each candidate and their plans, and it comes as no surprise when the first one he dismisses is Jade. He calls her a good salesperson and praises her enthusiasm, but ultimately the negative association of investing in the type of telemarketing business which most consumers despise is too much to overlook. (Also, never questioned in the programme itself, surely a £250,000 would barely scratch the surface of meeting Jade’s ambition of setting up the UK’s largest call centre?)

Next to leave is … Nick. Sugar recognises his intelligence, but worries he will get dragged into the business too much and questions whether the opportunity is big enough to drive the kind of financials Nick is hoping for.

Which just leaves Ricky and Tom, last week’s task-winning pair. Sugar asks them to step outside so he can have one final consultation with Karren and Nick Hewer. Nick seems to favour Tom, saying his idea is risky but “electrically exciting” and challenges his former boss:

Do you really want a pedestrian recruitment business, or do you really want one last final hurrah?

Karren stands up for Ricky, saying Sugar shouldn’t rule out his idea just because it is relatively safe.

With Tom and Ricky back in the boardroom, Sugar tells them it is basically a choice of “safety versus devilment”. He says:

You’re both credible people to invest the money in.

Which, much though I would never have believed it five or six weeks ago – Ricky? Credible? – I 100% agree with. But finally he declares that he must stick to his ethos of keeping things simple and straightforward, which means that Ricky is his new business partner, leaving a crestfallen Tom as the runner-up. Despite the disappointment, though, I’d say the image posted by Tom below would indicate there’s no hard feelings between the two. And didn’t I wonder aloud last week that there was a budding bromance? I’m just saying …

Is there bromance in the air? No tongues, please! (image courtesy of Tom Gearing)

There’s no Taxi to Obscurity™ for our winner, of course. Instead it is a ride in Sugar’s Rolls-Royce, where a near-speechless Ricky reflects on his victory (his “reflection of perfection”, perhaps?):

Knowing that I’ve won this process, I can’t formulate or articulate the words to say what it means. It is the recognition that everything that I’ve done has been worthwhile and it’s important for me that people see that, that there’s more to me than meets the eye. Lord Sugar and I are going to be a powerful force to reckon with.

Congratulations to Ricky. Despite being initially set up as this year’s rent-a-quote Stuart Baggs, he emerged over the second half of the process as having good all-round business skills, with a solid investment idea to back it up. The same could be said for second-placed Tom, who shared many of the same cool and analytical traits as Ricky. His fine wine hedge fund was riskier and yet offers far more lucrative potential. His was an idea very much of the moment, with wine investment a popular topic in City circles right now. I have no doubt both will do well with their respective businesses. Nick and Jade I have more doubts about, but I wish them (and all the other candidates) all the best. We have laughed with them – and frequently at them – for the past 12 weeks, but there’s no reward without risk, right?

And, despite some initial doubts, I would say the quality of the business plans presented by the finalists was vastly superior to last year’s offering, where only Susan Ma really had a viable plan (which Sugar subsequently invested in). The format may arguably be getting a bit stale, but the quality of the final four was better this year than last. That can only be a good thing for those of us who are interested in The Apprentice as a showcase for business ideas as well as an entertainment show.

16 candidates: one winner. Lord Sugar’s search for his business partner is over. And so are my Apprentice season eight recaps. Thanks for sticking with me all these weeks. See you later in the year for Junior Apprentice?

I am currently writing episode summaries for Tom Gearing’s personal website, where you can find out more about this year’s runner-up.

Link: BBC official website

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Street art

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