Lonely nights and a glum HQ. As this year’s contest reaches its climax, past winners Ricky Martin and Tom Pellereau reveal what it's like to work with Lord Sugar
Whatever the hopes and dreams of the winner of The Apprentice (which concludes next week), it is unlikely those dreams will look much like Loughton. Wedged between the M25 and M11 in deepest suburban Essex, Loughton is Lord Sugar country.
The grumpy peer-come-reality-TV-star has offices everywhere. Just opposite the Homebase on the other side of the central roundabout is Amshold House, a two-storey red-brick office block that could be a regional call centre or a drab depot just about anywhere. Mayfair it is not, yet Amshold House is the home of the businesses of the last two Apprentice winners, and when this year’s winner is announced, he or she will set up shop here too.
I have come to see what “winning The Apprentice” means, and I’ll admit: I approach Amshold House with “Be careful what you wish for” running through my mind like a ticker. In the lobby the reception desk is unmanned.
Upstairs, at the far end of an open-plan office sits Ricky Martin, the Ultimate Fighting fan with the weird blue eyes who triumphed last year. Martin, 28, is now the managing director of Hyper Recruitment Solutions, whose “vision”, his brochure says, is to “provide recruitment solutions which will assist in the improvement and quality of life for all”. At the other end of the room is 33-year-old Tom Pellereau, the nutty professor from the year before whose company Stylfile sells nail clippers and S-shaped emery boards. There are three rows of empty desks between them.
“We’re having a competition,” says Martin. “I want to fill the space with my staff before the next winner comes in. Tom’s not going to get there. It’s mine, he knows that, I tell him it every day.” Pellereau thinks that Martin and his eight employees talk too loudly. “He’s always on the phone, wheeling and dealing.” Martin thinks Pellereau sits there playing with his toys, “designing things and breaking stuff”. I am a longtime Apprentice fan, and like most viewers I enjoy it because it makes me feel slightly better about myself. If the contestants, with all their calamitous bluster, are the next business mavens, then I can rest safe in the knowledge that I could make it in business, were I to so choose.
Obviously this is delusory, but then so is most television.
So really I wanted the past winners of The Apprentice to be floundering in their own mediocrity, and at first sight everything about Amshold House suggested as much. In many ways it is a stark reminder of what business actually consists of for the majority. Purely functional, it’s a place people drive to, to work long hours, drink a few too many coffees and then drive home again. A year ago Martin was in all the newspapers; a year later he’s the managing director of “a specialist and highly compliant recruitment consultancy dedicated to the science and technology sectors”. You can imagine Nick Hewer sneering as he says the words.
Pellereau’s desk is just the sort of muddle you might hope an inventor would produce a few half-drunk coffees, several inscrutable mind maps he’s drawn and a ruler for measuring plastic packaging. The latter is important, he tells me efficient p&p saves money. Opposite him a woman is staring at close-ups of chocolate shavings on her screen. Stylfile make a foot file that’s like a grater for calloused skin; apparently chocolate has a similar density to foot skin.
At the other end of the office there’s a large, sans serif “HRS” sign announcing that this is Martin’s domain. “I’m not just a wide-boy recruiter,” he says as he shows me round the three desks that make up the HRS HQ. He does, however, give a very good impression of one. He has wrist exercisers next to his keyboard, and he keeps laminated name tags from conferences he’s attended, so that when he sits at his keyboard he is confronted with a wall of different typefaces all reminding him who he is. So again, the inclination is to mock. Yet talking to Pellereau and Martin, it’s hard not to be won over by their endeavour. When you hear on the radio that small businesses form the backbone of the economy, generally from some government minister whose only experience of small business is sending his driver to Londis, it’s hard to picture what small business means. Henceforth I am going to picture glum old Amshold House, with Martin at one end and Pellereau at the other, both giving it a damn good crack.
“I’d never worked hard until I set the company up,” says Martin. “It was a bit of an eye-opener. I might have won The Apprentice, but do you know what the realities are? I’ve taken a pay cut to do what I’m doing, I’m not earning the bonuses it’s all going in to the company.”
First Martin needed to hire staff. That was made harder by the fact that any potential employees already had opinions about their boss, the guy from The Apprentice. “It was tough to find good people you go on TV and everybody applies for the job all of a sudden, but as soon as people would start talking about The Apprentice or Lord Sugar my alarm bells started ringing, I’d think, ‘Is this person serious?’”
Tom Pellereau’s Stylfile products
Pellereau, for his part, says that The Apprentice exposure has been nothing but helpful. “I’m fortunate in two respects: now I can get a meeting with Sainsbury’s and Tesco (Other OTC: TSCDY - news) and Boots because they know who I am. They know that 10 and a half million people saw me, watched the final, and somehow people seemed to relate to me or will support me. People I meet in the street are so incredibly kind and that has really shown through in their support and their interest in the products and in trying them out. And then, secondly, I’m part of something bigger.”
That bigger something is Lord Sugar, who looms over Amshold House like an enormous bearded blimp. Sugar is not merely the angel investor in their businesses both are owned on a 50/50 basis but also their promotional trump card. That’s why on the sales brochures in the lobby they are pictured smiling next to his Lordship, like he’s giving them a prize at school.
Sugar, they both tell me, has an office upstairs. It contains a granite table, too, Martin informs me. I wonder, could I pop up and say hello to their business partner?
“He’s not in this week,” says Martin. “He’s out of the country.” I wonder how often he’s in the country, or indeed in the building. What kind of business partner should an Apprentice winner expect to get?
“I probably see him every day,” says Martin. “It’s not a sitdown chat. Nine times out of 10 he’ll walk over and say, ‘Ricky, what can I do for you?’ I’m like, ‘I’m all right at the moment, I’ll send you something later if there’s something we can do.’ Pellereau is equally impressed. “If I have a question I email it and if he’s not back in half an hour he’s back within a day. It’s amazing,” he says.
I ask Pellereau, who is as affable as they come, if he actually likes his business partner?
“Very good question. I massively respect him. I don’t ever expect to be friends. He’s like that headmaster who you kind of know is on your side but they’re never going to show it. Some of the tweets that I see that he receives from people... I just can’t believe the abuse that he can get, and I think that’s wrong. But he’s very, very good to me, that’s all I can say.
“We did a bit of a calculation of how much £250,000 was worth to him and how much it was worth to me, and it was the equivalent of maybe a weekend away or an expensive dinner. So given his investment I can’t believe how involved he’s been: he doesn’t get paid for his time.”
If this were The Apprentice boardroom then Lord Sugar would already have demanded some cold, hard figures from both candidates, and they’d be sweating on their maths. I put on my best boardroom face and demand an audit. HRS hasn’t been trading for long enough to file accounts so Martin can’t, or won’t give me any numbers.
“I gave a prediction to our board, which is myself and Lord Sugar, and I’m ahead of that prediction so from my perspective that’s good. The business plan I proposed on The Apprentice has been robust enough to survive this first year.” Stylfile has made profits of £28,000 on a turnover of between £250,000 and £300,000 and Pellereau says there’ll be more this year. He drives a BMW (Xetra: 519000 - news) and has just moved into his first house with his wife and their new daughter.
He’s even got some new glasses.
Martin has moved from Hampshire to Essex to live the Sugary dream. “It’s a culture shock. It’s getting used to the fake tan but then I wore that anyway so I don’t really mind.” He got married in May last year, as The Apprentice was being shown. He and his wife don’t get to see each other all that much. It sounds quite tough he’s living in a more expensive part of the country and he’s earning less than he was before. He gives himself a day off a week at best.
“I do think if I wasn’t giving the business my all I shouldn’t be in this seat. I think had I been turning up nine to five, enjoying all my evenings and my weekends, I think somebody else should have had this opportunity because I’ve wanted this for years, I got the chance and I’m not going to let it fail.”
Pellereau was always a viewer favourite on the show; Martin less so. He recently watched his performance on The Apprentice again and describes it as a chastening experience: “I saw lots of things I didn’t like about myself. Sometimes I think I would come out with statements like, ‘I’m great at this...’ without any substance behind it. It was probably just to rile the rest of the team and get them scared. But it made me think that I do have to be a bit more grown-up. If I say something there needs to be a reason for it, not just because I’m being an arrogant git.”
It’s hard to assess his management style now, but all seems well at Amshold House. Contrast that with the fortunes of the winner from the year before: a few months prior to meeting Pellereau and Martin, Stella English, who won the series in 2010, sued Sugar for constructive dismissal. She claimed she was treated as an “overpaid lackey” and that the job was “a sham” and a PR construct. Her claim was dismissed in April.
Stella English, the 2010 winner, had her claim for constructive dismissal thrown out by a tribunal
Sham or otherwise, English took home a prize that was subtly different to the one that Martin and Pellereau won. She got a job working for Sugar.
Martin and Pellereau gave Sugar an idea and he partnered up with them and invested. It’s meant that the show, rather than the resultant job, is now a bit of a sham it’s called The Apprentice but the end result is something closer to Dragon’s Den. Yet on the evidence I have seen today, giving the winners responsibility for their own companies has been far more helpful. Neither of them want any truck with English.
“If I’m really honest,” says Pellereau, “I felt frustrated that that could happen to an individual [Lord Sugar] who tried to support her and give her an opportunity.”
“Me? I can’t believe that someone wouldn’t like what they got,” says Martin.
“Me and Tom will discuss things about the position we’re in now post-The Apprentice and we both couldn’t be more grateful.”