Many of my friends were hooked on the latest series of The Apprentice
Many of my friends were hooked on the latest series of The Apprentice — even our usually infallible television critic James Delingpole, who told me that he loved it ‘because it’s so awful’. Perhaps I should make more effort to master postmodern irony, but I’m afraid I found Sir Alan Sugar and his contestants just too irritating to watch for more than five minutes at a time. I’m with Sir Digby Jones on this one: the about-to-retire chief of the CBI accused the programme’s makers of chasing ratings by presenting a caricature of business as a brutal pursuit of the bottom line, thereby reinforcing negative stereotypes rather than doing what Sugar presumably thought he was doing, which was to encourage young people to want to become successful entrepreneurs like himself.
Still, I suppose The Apprentice does have something to teach us about modern business manners — on which some interesting research has come to hand from the Aziz Corporation, which describes itself as Britain’s ‘leading independent executive communications consultancy’. A survey published last month tells us, for example, that the etiquette of the business lunch has moved decisively away from old standards of conviviality: it is now more acceptable to take a mobile phone call during the meal than to light up a cigarette afterwards, and only 39 per cent of managers think it ‘perfectly acceptable’ to drink a glass of wine with your food. Most pertinently for television audiences, today’s executives ‘prefer to hear colleagues swear than bullshit’; 66 per cent of managers find meaningless corporate waffle in meetings ‘very annoying’, while only 37 per cent object to honest expletives — a triumph for the influence of foul-mouthed ‘reality’ programming.
Michelle Dewberry — the former Kwik Save checkout girl whom Sugar picked to work for him as this year’s winner of The Apprentice — certainly seems to match up to the new no-nonsense corporate model. I accidentally caught five minutes of a post-final chat show in which the host, Adrian Chiles, began in traditional style by asking 26-year-old blonde Michelle and runner-up Ruth Badger, 28, how they were feeling about the result. Miss Badger — who earlier boasted to the Daily Mirror that she had ‘the biggest pair’ among the female contestants, even if she had not used them as a competitive weapon — was predictably ‘gutted’ to have lost. I was expecting Michelle to waffle blondely about being ‘over the moon’, but in fact what she said, if I jotted it down correctly, was more brutally honest than even the show’s producers must have been hoping: ‘To tell you the truth, I’m shitting myself.’ With that sort of talent, she’ll probably end up ousting Sir Alan on camera from his own boardroom with his own catchphrase: ‘You’re fired — you grizzly, overhyped old ******.’
As Jonathan Davis says in this week’s Investment column, professional investors have been on the alert since the beginning of this year for signals of an impending fall in asset prices that will leave small savers running for cover and knock the consumer economy flat again. Heavy selling of metal commodities and ‘emerging market’ equities at the beginning of this week suggests that many professionals are now in the same state of clenched apprehension as Miss Dewberry. I, too, have been on the lookout for sell signals, but closer to home: for me, the clearest indicator that there is now more money than sense driving the economy is Helmsley’s chocolate fountain.
Let me explain. In May each year, just as my beech hedge comes into leaf to confirm that spring has at last reached North Yorkshire, along comes a new array of seedling businesses, carrying interesting messages about consumer tastes and spending patterns. The county’s small market towns, often dominated by traditional estate landlords, offer plenty of short-term retail and light industrial spaces to rent, and new ventures — especially those conceived to catch the tourist trade — come and go, reflecting passing fads and fashions. So far this year I observe, among other trends, a rapid overheating in the handmade chocolate truffles sector to match anything that is happening on the London Metal Exchange. Helmsley (pop. 1,500) now has at least four chocolateries, all startlingly expensive and one featuring a four-feet-high fountain of lukewarm milk chocolate into which customers are invited to dip marshmallows and strawberries on sticks.
Those particular premises — within recent memory an estate worker’s cottage — were previously an ‘executive toy’ shop and a mildly exotic lingerie boutique, both of which seemed to have been a bit too far ahead of fashion for local shoppers. But I notice that we now also have a clinic providing holistic therapies and Reiki massage in what used to be a craft workshop (you could already find shiatsu and aromatherapy in what used to be a farmyard just over my beech hedge) and in nearby Kirkbymoorside the last traditional draper’s shop has been replaced by a fitness studio. This oversupply of therapy and chocolate is, of course, a response to perceived demand — suggesting, worryingly, that even frugal Yorkshire folk are willing to fritter cash on self-indulgence and self-obsession rather than saving and investing it. But I think the fountain could be what professionals call the tipping point: market crashes usually bring headlines about blood on the street, but this time round watch out for molten chocolate.
As part of our new weekly Business section, Any Other Business’s dispatches from Helmsley Market Place will henceforth alternate with City Life, in which a variety of contributors will offer glimpses of what is happening in other important financial centres around the world, as well as in London. There will also be investment ideas every week, and a selection of provocative interviews, features and economic commentary. I hope you will find these pages entertaining, informative, soundly opinionated and occasionally surprising, and I will be delighted to receive your comments on them at email@example.com.