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The Apprentice: Just two survive the interviews

December 16, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the eleventh episode? Catch up here:

The task

It’s the interview stage. The previous tasks look like a walk in the park compared to a day facing Lord Sugar’s inner circle of business heavies — Margaret Mountford, Viglen CEO Borden Tkachuk, former Amstrad CEO Claude Littner and lawyer Alan Watts.

The candidates put on brave faces but the masks slip pretty fast after the first bruising encounters. To begin with they try to convince their fellow candidates that they have done well as they wait between interviews but as the day wears on, the toughness of the task is written on their faces in sweat and Stuart sums it up by saying, “I feel like I’ve done ten rounds with Mike Tyson”.

How did the candidates perform?

Jamie

Jamie’s attempt at joking on his CV — saying he has a third nipple and then revealing it’s a lie — is derided as “puerile” by Margaret Mountford. His Cyprus-based property business also comes under scrutiny in the interviews. He is accused of playing the blame game — blaming his parents for his poor qualifications and his Cyprus partner for his business failings. He tells Margaret Mountford, “I’m a key cog in a wheel.” She says, “Any wheel?” and he replies, “I am a cog”.

Stuart

Stuart greets Margaret Mountford like an old friend and gets a frosty reception. He tries to convince all the interviewers that he isn’t dishonest even though he has written on his CV that he once told the media a whopping lie — that a rival had gone bust. Worse, he has claimed to have a full telecoms license when in fact he only holds an easy-to-get, inexpensive ISP license.

Claude Littner really goes to town on him. He says, “’I am Stuart Baggs the brand’ — what on earth are you talking about? Don’t tell me what a brand is. You are not a brand.” Later Stuart says he is a big fish in a small pond. Claude responds, “You are not a big fish. You are not even a fish.”

Stella

Stella’s corporate background is still being cited as a drawback. At one point she is accused of being a “glorified PA”. Borden Tkachuk calls her the “admin queen”. But Nick Hewer leaps to her defence calling her “entirely decent” and Karren Brady says, with feeling, “She’s ambitious and there’s nothing wrong with an ambitious woman.”

Chris

Chris is not that long out of university, so he bigs up his academic achievements. This does not go down well at all and you get the impression that Stella’s “I left school at 15 with no qualifications and look where I am today” is impressing the panel far more than a first class honours degree.

Chris also has to deal with accusations that he’s a quitter having dropped out of a law degree to do politics and having left his investment bank job after just nine months.

Joanna

Poor Joanna is like a rabbit in headlights when Borden Tkachuk asks her to tell him about Lord Sugar’s companies. She doesn’t know how to pronounce them, let alone what they do.

Praised for starting a business, she is then criticised for not trying to grow the business. Joanna says “I don’t want to be known as Joanna the Cleaner”. But the panel suggests she should focus on being Joanna, owner of a successful cleaning business.

The losers

Lord Sugar wastes little time in sacking Stuart. He tells him, “I don’t believe a word you say.” And he berates himself for allowing Stuart to come this far.

Jamie, meanwhile, is let down a little more gently — he has “come to the end of the road”.

Finally, Joanna gets high praise from Lord Sugar as he, regretfully, points the finger at her. He says, “You leave here with your head high, You’ve done very very well.”

The finalists

So two bankers — Stella and Chris — have made it to the final. My money is still on Stella.

Quote of the week

“My four advisors, they have said to me you’re full of s**t basically.” Lord Sugar, as he fires Stuart.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The Apprentice: Stuart bags a place in the final five

December 13, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the tenth episode? Catch up here.

The task

And then there were five. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel — characters keep getting bumped off left, right and centre. But before we get to this week’s boardroom firing, the remaining six have to set up tours around London and sell tickets to tourists. Stella and Liz are in team Apollo with Stuart at the helm while Synergy’s Jamie and Chris are lead by Joanna.

Apollo chooses to run a cockney tour while Synergy plumps for a ghouls and ghosts experience. Both team get the chance to pitch to the London Visitors Centre who are willing to sell tickets on behalf of one team – for the right deal.

This task allows Stuart Baggs to say lots of disturbing things like — “Tourists are just juicy money bags. I’m going to dip my hands into their pockets.”

The best bits

No-one handles the negotiation with the London Visitors Centre well. They don’t have a plan and their negotiation skills are poor. Stuart pitches his prices far too high. But the manager of the Centre is rubbing his hands in glee when Chris inadvertently offers the Centre 20 per cent of the entire takings — rather than just a cut of the Centre’s ticket sales. Synergy even has to hand over 20 per cent of Jamie’s hard-earned tips! Collected in his very own hat!

But it turns out that this deal is, in fact, a stroke of genius. The partnership with the Centre ensures they sell way more tickets than Apollo.

The worst bits

The tours are terrible. It’s amazing that the passengers don’t simply get off the bus when it stops at traffic lights. Jamie’s commentary is endearing but wildly inaccurate — “The Thames is the second biggest river in London”. Nick Hewer is on board and his face is a picture.

Stella’s tour includes a lot of time spent wandering around the East End looking for a jellied eels stall (and never finding it) and having a lovely sing-song on the top deck of the bus. Karren Brady also looks less than impressed.

It’s getting pretty tense too as the competition reaches its final stages. Chris and Stuart have a turf war in Trafalgar Square and after a good deal of swearing, Stuart challenges Chris to an actual flight. It reminds us that Stuart is young enough to behave as if he’s still back in the playground.

The winners and losers

So Synergy wins and Liz, Stella and Stuart are left in the boardroom. Stuart quickly takes the offensive, making crazy financial promises and pleading for another chance. The substance of what he says does not impress Lord Sugar. “One day you’ll look back and cringe,” he tells Stuart. Lord Sugar also highlights Stuart’s childishness and wonders if it’s time for “beddybyes”. But Stuart’s spirit has made an impact and, amazingly, Lord Sugar points his finger at Liz.

The ones to watch

Stella, Joanna and Chris still look strong but after this week’s bombshell, who knows?

Quote of the week

“I’m not a one trick pony, I’m not a ten trick pony. I’ve got a field of ponies waiting to literally run towards this.” Part of Stuart’s impassioned speech that persuaded Lord Sugar to keep him in the contest.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The Apprentice: Stella’s halo slips

December 07, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the ninth episode? Catch up here.

The task

Another pre-dawn start and this time they are meeting in Tower 42 in the city of London. As the sun comes up over the London skyline, Lord Sugar rises up to meet them in a great glass elevator. So what has he got in store for them this week? It’s a treasure hunt — the treasure being an eclectic list of hard-to-find items — including Indian gold, chickens’ feet, white truffles, a four-foot length of kitchen worktop (rarer than you might think), a special length of tartan, an antique sewing machine and the Bluebook (a set of four handbooks teaching London cabbies “the knowledge”).

There are ten items in all. But the critical thing is not just to source the items but to buy them at the lowest price possible. Failure to buy incurs a fine of £50 plus the list price. This task has got Lord Sugar’s name all over it — it’s all about wheeling and dealing. He chops and changes the teams once more and this time, all the girls are in team Apollo while the three remaining boys are in Synergy. This week’s team leaders are Liz and Jamie.

The best bits

Once again, it’s fascinating to compare the different approaches. The girls are well-organised, taking a full two hours to phone around and source the items before they hit the road. The planning pays off and they get all the items on the list. The boys, meanwhile, are strong negotiators and get some of the items at incredibly low prices. It’s all thanks to Jamie’s inspired approach — to come up with stories to support their bargaining. A taxi driving brother, a Scottish wedding — there are no limits to the tales they can spin in a bid to get a bargain. The tall stories work — not because they are believed (they are not) but because the sellers have to offer a rock-bottom price to get shot of these strange people.

The worst bits

So both teams have strengths but who has the edge? Athough the girls look like a crack buying team and the boys are disorganised, the bottom line is price. While the girls enjoy the treasure hunt, the boys rightly see it as a bargain hunt and negotiate accordingly. The biggest disaster occurs when the girls go to a Knightsbridge restaurant to buy their truffles. Not only are they shopping in the worst possible place for a bargain, they get their maths all wrong and manage to pay twice the going rate.

The winners and losers

The girls lose. Everyone is shocked, especially the boys. Talk in the boardroom is all about Trufflegate. Laura and Stella were the ones who did the deal so they come in for a lot of flak. In fact Stella is really in the spotlight this week and not in a good way. All the girls accuse her of being a poor negotiator. Karren Brady says she’s too “corporate”. Perhaps what they really mean is that she is too full of herself. Suddenly, everyone is keen to bring her down and peg or two. But Lord Sugar acknowledges her past strengths and eventually tells Laura she is fired.

The ones to watch

Stella’s halo has well and truly slipped. Judging by the frosty atmosphere between her and Liz back at the house, the gloves are off between these two strong contenders. Joanna, though, is quietly looking like a possible winner. But the boys will have to lift their game if any of them want to stand a chance. Then again, as Stuart says, “even when we’re s**t, we win”!

Quote of the week

“We’ve negotiated well, we’ve got every single product, we’ve come back here feeling confident, everybody’s done a good job and I can’t wait to hear the results.” Laura Moore, shortly before she is fired.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The Apprentice: Das ist wunderbar!

November 25, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the eighth episode? Catch up here.

The task

Much excitement this week as the contestants find out they are going abroad. Destination: Hamburg. The mission: to sell new flavours of crisps to the Germans. Germany’s snack market is worth millions of Euros and is dominated by strong flavours like paprika. The two teams have to work with crisp makers in the UK to come up with new flavours that will tempt the German palette. Synergy is lead by Chris Bates, who has something to prove, having been in the losing team too many times to count. He has Liz, Jamie and Chris Farrell to help him. Meanwhile Apollo is lead by steady Stella and she’s working with Stuart, Laura and Joanna.

The best bits

Stuart reveals a creditable knowledge of German that he’s keen to show off. Absolutely everything is “wunderbar” according to Stuart. It’s pretty hilarious but actually his spirited attempts to speak German pay off big time. It breaks the ice with prospective customers and earns him respect. His approach is in stark contrast to Synergy’s Chris Farrell who says “I hate the Germans” at the start of the task.

The product development part of the challenge sees both teams looking for interesting new flavours. Nick Hewer’s eyes look skywards as Joanna suggests “:curry pie”. In the end, Apollo goes for beef & chilli and stilton & paprika, while Synergy chooses curry wurst and goulash. Yum yum!

The worst bits

Synergy makes two classic mistakes. Firstly, when setting up a sales appointment, Jamie and Chris Farrell are offered the choice of a 9am slot or a 1pm slot. Chris goes for the early appointment but Jamie, looking at the diary, suggests they change it to the later time. It soon transpires that there’s nothing actually in the diary at 9am. Perhaps Jamie wants a lie-in. It gets worse. Apollo gets the early appointment and wins a big order. Synergy gets diddly-squat.

At another prospective business, the manager is out and Jamie and Chris waste time talking to someone who does not have any buying authority. Apollo turns up later, the manager is in and he places an order. Kerching.

The winners and losers

The task is won by Apollo even though Synergy do get a cracking £14,289 order from one customer. But Apollo gets more appointments and more orders at the end of the day. And so this week’s loser is — Chris Farrell. Lord Sugar doesn’t think he has the entrepreneurial spark he is looking for, based, it seems, on his performance throughout the series. Team leader Chris Bates breathes a massive sigh of relief.

The ones to watch

Joanna is suddenly looking very impressive. So much so that hard-to-please Nick Hewer singles her out in the boardroom and praises her for her perseverance. “You were really firing on all 12 cylinders”. It looks like she could give Stella a run for her money.

Quote of the week

“You did try hard. You tried really hard. So hard, in fact, that you annoyed the guy. He found you quite unprofessional. I think he could smell your desperation.” Karren Brady.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The Apprentice: The Stuart Baggs show

November 18, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the seventh episode? Catch up here:

The task

The cars are coming to take the candidates to Pinewood Studios. Joanna has vaguely heard of the world-famous film studios where Harry Potter and the James Bond movies are made and hazards a guess, “I’m sure it’s a furniture store.” Standing in front of the biggest blue screen in Europe, Lord Sugar explains that the two teams have to create and sell virtual experience DVDs to shoppers at Westfield Shopping centre. This involves making a background action movie, buying props, filming people in front of a screen and flogging the DVDs.

The best bits

It was the Stuart Baggs show last night. Project leader for Apollo, Stuart was so bad, he was good. There were definite shades of David Brent. The team selected motor-racing for the backdrop which allowed Stuart to race around Brands Hatch and utter the immortal line, “I have to rein in my own extreme masculinity in this task.” Stuart’s leadership style was horrendous. He talked over everyone, made quick bad decisions, took a dramatic u-turn when he realized his mistake and then took the credit for the new strategy. At one point he says, “I think we made good decisions under quite a lot of pressure.” Guess who provided the pressure? Best of all, he kept trying to score points against Stella in a game of “how many different ways are there to say, ‘I’m brilliant and you’re useless.’” Stella simply batted him away like an annoying fly.

The worst bits

Synergy, meanwhile, was lead by Sandeesh, who was trying to assert herself and shake off Lord Sugar’s accusation that she does “naff all”. She did try, bless her, but was undermined by Jamie, who was unhappy with his role as errand boy.

Both teams displayed a very cavalier attitude to pricing. Apollo started selling the DVDs for £10 but as sales took off they decided to up the price to £15, leaving customers distinctly unamused. Over on Synergy, the team dropped the price early on and sold the DVDs too cheaply.

The winners and losers

Neither team did brilliantly but Apollo scraped a win. It’s worth watching Stuart Baggs’ hilarious reaction to winning, puffing himself up and only just stopping himself from punching the air and shouting “come on”. Ooh the masculinity! And so Synergy lost and it was left to Sandeesh to bring two team members back into the boardroom. To say she doesn’t have the killer instinct is putting it mildly. She has been the sacrificial lamb enough times, but for some reason she lets Jamie off the hook and selects the two strongest members of her team, Chris and Liz. Why, Sandeesh, why? It doesn’t take Lord Sugar long to point the finger. Sandeesh, you’re fired.

The ones to watch

Stella continues to shine like the star that she is. I’m ready to put money on her to win. But let’s hope Stuart Baggs hangs on for a few more weeks to keep us entertained and to make the saner contestants look good.

Quote of the week

“Stuart’s leadership style leaves me trembling with irritation. Who does he think he is.” Nick Hewer.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

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The Apprentice: Bye bye Paloma

November 04, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the fifth episode? Catch up here.

The task

It’s another early start and this time the candidates have been asked to pack an overnight bag. They are going to Manchester to sell clothes at the Trafford Centre. But first they must select two lines of clothing made by some young up-and-coming new designers in London. All the girls’ eyes light up at the prospect of a fashion task and Liz becomes leader of Synergy while Paloma leads Apollo.

The best bits

Things are looking slightly more professional at last — although it’s hard to know whether the candidates are improving or it’s just that the worst of the bunch have left. Then again, it could simply be the fact that this task is a buying and selling job, pure and simple, and does not include any tricky manufacturing challenges — sausages, muffins etc — that often descend into farce. For me, the best bits are watching Nick Hewer’s constantly changing facial expressions, which register everything from amusement to horror and speak louder than words.

The worst bits

Apollo makes three mistakes. Like Synergy, Apollo visits the designers of some affordable glitzy party dresses that could sell themselves. While the Synergy team is in raptures over the clothes, the guys from Apollo stand there in silence. You can almost see the tumbleweed. So when the designers have to pick a team to sell their clothes, they opt for Synergy. Strike one. Compounding that mistake, Apollo then chooses a range of upcycled clothes with a hefty price tag that are very hard to sell. Strike two. Next, Alex brags that he has worked at the Trafford Centre before (doing what, one wonders) and takes charge of picking a site for Apollo’s promotional stand — miles from the team’s actual store. Strike three.

The losers

Paloma pins all the blame on Alex. She also takes Sandeesh into the boardroom — a transparently tactical decision as Sandeesh has already faced some flak from Lord Sugar. But nothing gets past Lord Sugar. He tells Alex, “I think you’ve been set up. You may be bloody useless but I’m going to give you another chance.” Paloma is out.

The ones to watch

As the numbers dwindle to ten, the potential stars are shining a bit brighter. And this week’s stars include Stella, Liz and Chris. Meanwhile, Alex and Sandeesh may have survived another week but their long-term prospects don’t look great.

Quote of the week

“Behind me you can see Stella wearing a very short sequined emerald green dress, waving at people from the window. Amsterdam? Maybe. But not in Manchester.” Nick Hewer.

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The Apprentice: turning flour into dough

October 21, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the third episode of The Apprentice? Catch up here.

The Task

Fortnum and Mason, Piccadilly. Lord Sugar, Karren Brady and Nick Hewer, stony-faced as ever, have called in the candidates to give them their next task — turning flour into serious dough. They have to make large amounts of bread and cakes, get orders from suppliers and also sell their wares on the streets of London. The team names are the same — Synergy and Apollo — but the players get shifted around so it’s no longer a competition between girls and boys.

The best bits

It’s all about multi-tasking and while each team is good at some things, neither manages to get it all right. Getting it all right would be essential in the real world of course. There are three key components to the task — getting orders, making the baked goods and selling the remaining stock on the street. All this requires careful pricing and planning. So what happens? Synergy (headed by Melissa Cohen) secures limited orders but the team shines in the bakery where it manages to create an effective production line churning out bagels and croissants  — arguably much easier when you have few orders. Apollo (lead by Shibby Robati) manages to pitch well — perhaps too well — and rashly promises to deliver 1900 units to a five star hotel.

The worst bits

So what goes wrong? Synergy is hopeless at pitching and has no idea what to charge. Given five minutes to think about their strategy by the hotel management, they take a full fifteen minutes and only secure a limited order when Alex steps in with prices at the last minute. Apollo, meanwhile, has given its baking team an impossible task. And sure enough, the next morning, they arrive at the hotel with only 16 — yes 16 — of the 1000 bread rolls ordered! The result? They have to pay the hotel compensation of £130.

The losers

Both teams end up selling just under £1000 of bread and cakes. But Apollo’s profits are hit by its compensation payment. So Shibby is in the firing line and he nominates Paloma and Sandeesh to take the flak too. But they can’t — or won’t — help him and this week it is Shibby who gets the chop. As ever, Lord Sugar also has words of warning for another candidate and it looks like Sandeesh is on borrowed time.

The ones to watch

A couple of the candidates are clearly learning how to play the game. Joanna “gobshite” Riley and Stuart “everything I touch turns to sold” Baggshave radically toned down their attitudes and may last longer as a result.

Quote of the week

“They sold cheap and it wasn’t a pretty sight really.” Nick Hewer watching Synergy giving away a box of muffins for a tenner.

The Apprentice: cuulis and cat fights

October 15, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the second episode? Catch up here.

The task

Heathrow Terminal Five. The candidates are hoping to jet off somewhere hot. But Sir Alan is just messing with their minds. The two teams are staying in London to design and produce a beach accessory and try and sell it to three retailers — Boots, online retailer Kit2Fit and World Duty Free.

The best bits

Product design always entertains. The boys plus Stella English come up with a multi-purpose towel/bag/cooler which they call the Cuuli complete with umlauts. They’ve succumbed to the temptation to create a product that does several different things. It makes for an entertaining if amateur pitch. But this multi-function approach rarely works in the real world. It fails to impress two of the retailers but Kit2Fit does put in an order for 100 units.

The worst bits

The girls come up with a product that is almost as bad as the cardboard camping shelving unit of the last series of Junior Apprentice. It’s a device to hold your book. But it doesn’t do that very well and the girls get no orders at all. Worst of all, however, is the moment when the mighty Boots offer to work with the girls on improving the design as long as they are prepared to offer exclusivity. An amazing offer. And team leader Laura Moore turns it down. Accusations fly in the boardroom. It’s not cool — or even cuuli.

The losers

The girls have blown it and Laura brings Joanna Riley and Joy Stefanicki back into the boardroom with her. Joanna’s crime is to be a self-confessed “gobshite”. Joy’s, it seems, is that she hasn’t pulled her weight. Laura made a colossal mistake turning down Boots’ offer of exclusivity. But she says, “I never make the same mistake twice”. The result? Joy gets fired and Joanna gets a warning from Sir Alan to work on her aggression. The girls as a whole get a massive telling off from Karren Brady for making business women everywhere look bad.

The one to watch

Stella English absolutely shines this week. She is in her element on the boy’s team and starts by saying, “I have no problem whatsoever in whipping these boys into shape”. Sure enough, she quickly establishes herself as team leader and the boys are putty in her hands. She does a great job of managing the project and as a result, she gets a big thumbs up from her team in the boardroom.

Quote of the week

“I’ve been called the battering ram, the bulldozer and the bulldog. I tend to stick my teeth in and I tend not to let go.” Melissa Cohen

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

True net gains?

February 02, 2010 by Mark Hook

“Small firms should increase their website presence,” urges BBC entrepreneur expert Howard Graham in a new piece on the BBC website.

He cites the well-established business wisdom that growing your firm depends on creating a unique selling proposition (USP) and communicating it to your target market. “The web is simply the best way of doing that,” he argues.

In many cases, he’s right. For example, an independent bookshop selling rare first editions could make invaluable use of a website to make its unique publications known to a wider audience, and of course sell them via an online shop.

But I’m surprised that Graham should believe it’s “extraordinary” that fewer than half of all small businesses have a web presence. Is it really that astounding when, as the Federation of Small Businesses says, “the vast majority of small businesses serve their local markets”?

I spoke to my greengrocer this week. I suggested the very thing Graham is advocating, that he should consider investing in a website. I expected a negative reaction based on likely cost, but I was wrong. He simply replied: “I’m based in Bristol, why do I want someone in Leeds to know who I am? He won’t want to buy from me, and even if he does, by the time he gets to me, the carrots will have rotted!”

My local grocer was more concerned with making sure families down the street know he was open for business. Graham’s firm carried out a survey that backs this claim up: “A recent survey we carried out at Made Simple Group clearly showed that… specifically improving visibility to generate new business was a key concern for many.”

But is a website always the best way to achieve this? How vital is a web presence to a plumber, mobile hairdresser or local newsagent? Surely good old fashioned word-of-mouth, attention-grabbing signage and business cards do the job just as well – if not better – than an expensive website?

This is not to say small businesses should ignore other avenues of online marketing - social networks such as Twitter, Ecademy and Facebook, as well as blogging. All can provide excellent, low-cost exposure for your business. The Start Up Donut has some great videos that provide an introduction to online social networking.

But a purely web-based approach to publicising a small business can be ineffective if not suicidal. Small firms should increase their website presence – but only if there is true value in doing so.

Mark Hook, BHP Information Solutions

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