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The urge to be Sir Alan’s apprentice

The urge to be Sir Alan’s apprentice

13 June 2007

5:52 PM

13 June 2007

5:52 PM

When Sir Alan Sugar set up Amstrad selling car aerials nearly 40 years ago there was no television programme to encourage budding entrepreneurs. Britain was locked in an era of corporatism in which the conventional aspiration was to work for a multinational such as Shell or to be a civil servant.

In fact, the two were much the same, offering the anonymity, security and shared responsibility of the large organisation with its annual pay review and pensions scheme. It was by joining the Ministry of Education as a statistician when he left school at 17 that Sugar realised working for himself had to be better.

It has taken a long time for the country to share that view. But after decades when business was regarded as vulgar, entrepreneurship has become respectable again. That doesn’t always mean wanting to build a huge empire like a Branson or Hanson; small business is beautiful too. The 1980s gave us the Loadsamoney generation for whom greed was good, but we now have an environment in which making things is again regarded as highly as making money and in which fortunes can be based on innovation rather than investment.

Television shows like The Apprentice or Dragon’s Den attract big audiences wanting to watch entrepreneurs in action. Sugar’s latest series, which ended this week with Kristina and Simon being summonsed to the boardroom for the dubious honour of working for the tough taskmaster, has been promoted from BBC2 to BBC1 because of its popularity.

And while Sugar’s mix of Big Brother, Pop Idol and The Generation Game turns off as many viewers as turn on, a sound commercial thread runs through it. The tasks he sets have to do with knowing your market, sourcing materials, pricing to sell and assessing risk. There are no tasks based on health and safety, ‘human resources’ or diversity training, please note.

Sugar’s style of management may have little to do with ‘big business’ but the costermonger selling apples from a barrow has to perform every day without the benefit of an MBA and makes no money if he gets it wrong. Like the entry-level entrepreneurs Sugar is encouraging, he has to be a jack of all trades because he has no back-up — no legal department, no market research team, no IT support. But the eagerness to break free from the giant corporation and run a business the success of which depends on our own efforts is greater than it has been for a lifetime. The new entrepreneurs come from all backgrounds and ages. Many of the thousands made unemployed when old nationalised industries stopped subsidising non-jobs have found a more satisfying life running their own businesses. They didn’t get on their bikes to look for new jobs; they cycled down to the local industrial estate to set up small firms.

The dotcom boom saw a host of people prepared to take a chance on new technology. Only a few made fortunes, but all must be richer for their experience. Bored City brokers, bonuses in back-pockets, are increasingly swapping the safety of their investment banks for the excitement of going it alone. Managers in big companies are buying out their divisions so that they can run their own show and reap the rewards of their own efforts — and they don’t need private-equity tax breaks. Even the buy-to-let boom reflects the new entrepreneurialism.

Possibly most encouraging is the injection of commercialism into universities, which for decades regarded all business as evil capitalism. Today’s academics can’t wait to transfer their research projects from the campus to the stock exchange. People are setting up companies, registering for VAT and signing up as self-employed in record numbers. The red-tape and late-payment problems that business lobby groups constantly complain about on their behalf are not sufficient to deter the growing numbers wanting to do their own thing.

And these new entrepreneurs accept that rewards come with risks. They are not scared to stake their wealth and reputations on giving it a go. Corporate insolvencies reflect the fact that not all apprentices make it to the final episode, but these are mainly honest people who failed to balance their business finances and probably lost their own money too — not profligate consumers who enjoyed the high life on credit cards they could never service. 

There has been a sea change in attitudes to employment in Britain. It is not only boredom with big business that makes people prepared to give their own ideas a try: the end of the job-for-life and the final-salary pension has made them realise they must look after themselves because no one else will. The switch to money-purchase pensions alone has introduced risk-taking and decision-making to a generation whose parents had no such choices to make.

It is good that Britain has shed its  post-war love of corporatism, with all the inefficiencies and suppression of individualism it embraced. The self-confidence that now allows people to take risks and determine their own future will produce the next generation of Alan Sugars. Good for them — and good for Britain too.

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