Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
'What are you going to do with them?' he asked.
'Don't worry, leave it to me,' I replied. The sacks were bigger than I was, so I went back to the flats and borrowed a pram. I loaded on two sacks and took them round to the rag-and-bone man.
Here was my first experience of getting 'legged over'. Unbeknown to me, the sacks contained gold dust as far as the scrap merchant was concerned, as the material was wool. This bloke took one look at this eleven-year-old and said, 'What you've got in those sacks is rubbish.' He weighed the stuff on his
scales and said, 'I'll give you half a crown [2s 6d] for the lot.' I took it. Naive - stupid, you might say - but half a crown was a lot of money in those days.
The next week, after cleaning the boss's car, I asked him what kind of material was in those sacks. When he told me it was wool, I was furious - I should have got at least PS1 10s for two sacks of wool. I took a scrap of the material to the rag-and-bone man and confronted him. 'I've just been told this is wool - you told me it was rubbish. I want some more money or I want the two sacks back,' I yelled at him angrily. I won't tell you what he said to me. He slung two shillings at me and told me to clear off.
'I can get loads more of this stuff and I'm going to find another rag-and-bone man to sell it to!'
He just laughed and virtually threw me out.
Another side of me came out now. I was wound up and angry. I wasn't frightened to speak up, but short of grabbing hold of him or kicking him, what could I do? He was a grown man and I was an eleven-year-old shnip. I went back home and told my mum and dad what had happened. They laughed, then my father asked, 'How much did you get in the end?'
'Four and six.' A sudden look of fear came over his face at the realisation that his eleven-year-old son had made 4s 6d.
'Where did you get this stuff from?' he said.
'I told you - from the factory down the road.'
'They let you take it? You sure you didn't take it without asking?'
'No. The boss gave it to me. He wanted to get rid of it. Normally the dustman takes it away.'
Are you sure?'
I couldn't believe it. Instead of being complimented, I was being interrogated as if I'd done something wrong! It was a strange attitude, but one I'd become increasingly familiar with in later years. Many's the time I'd have to play down the success of my business activities because my father could not believe that someone so young could make so much money. To put things into perspective, his take-home pay at the time was PS8 for working a forty-hour week. How could an eleven-year-old boy go out and make 4s 6d in just a couple of hours? Basically, I'd spotted some stuff in one place and seen another place to sell it. And what's more, I really enjoyed doing it.
At the numerous talks I give around the country these days, I often hear the term 'entrepreneurial spirit' bandied about. At these talks, there'll be a Q&A session and it never fails to annoy me when somebody stands up and says, 'Hello, I'm an entrepreneur . . .' It really winds me up. An entrepreneur is not a word to be used lightly and it's certainly not something you call
It should be a term used by a person when describing another's abilities. I refer to
entrepreneurial spirit as I have been branded an entrepreneur so many times by so many people that I feel I've earned the right, and I can see what it takes to be labelled as such. I often say that it doesn't matter which business school you go to or what books you read, you can't go into Boots and buy a bottle of entrepreneurial juice. Entrepreneurial spirit is something you are born with, just like a concert pianist's talent. Stick me in a room with a piano teacher for a year and maybe I'll end up being able to give you a rendition of 'Roll Out the Barrel', but would I ever be a concert pianist playing at the Royal Albert Hall? Not in a million years. In the same way, you've either got entrepreneurial spirit or you haven't. It resides within you and it's sparked off by ideas that come about through the various situations you find yourself in.
One such story - where a situation sparked off an idea - started with the simple need to light a fire for warmth. In those days, before everyone had central heating, raw coal was used as fuel. In our case, it heated the boiler for the bath and we had a coal fireplace. There was also a fireplace in my bedroom, but it was never used and many a winter's morning I would get up and find the windows iced over. Sometimes the glass of water by my bed would be frozen solid.
The coalmen would arrive outside Woolmer House with their large flatbed lorry loaded with sacks of coal. These poor fellows would hump their sacks up three flights of stairs and empty them into the large coal box we had in the hall. They must have been very fit, but heaven knows what today's Health and Safety brigade would have made of their working conditions, especially as they breathed in the clouds of coal dust that filled the air each time a sack was emptied. Sometimes I would give the coalman his money and my mum would tell me to add a threepenny bit as a tip.
Lighting the fire was a specialised job. You could buy fire-lighter strips, but they were a waste of money. Instead, most people bought little bundles of wooden sticks which were packaged in rolls and sold by most general hardware shops, such as Uncle John's. Many's the time I was sent down to Mr Braham's or Mr Morris's shop to buy these sticks, which sold for sixpence a bundle. You would make a little wigwam out of them, put some paraffin on them and stuff a bit of newspaper inside. Then you'd arrange the coal around the sticks. To start the fire, you lit the paper, which in turn would set light to the sticks and then the coal. It took about ten minutes to get a fire going.
Why have I told you all this? Well, it relates to another of my cheeky childhood schemes, which stemmed from, of all things, road construction. In
the late fifties the roads in Clapton were being resurfaced. I used to look out of the window and watch the workers with all their machinery, fascinated by the sights and sounds of it all - the plumes of fire and the clattering of pneumatic drills as they loosened the surface and dug it up. Nowadays, roadworks are performed quite quickly, but back then they went on for months. Sometimes I'd go down to the street and watch them more closely. I'd chat with the workers and ask what they were doing and I even started running back and forth to the cafe for them, getting them tea and sandwiches.
The removal of the old road surface uncovered a base layer of wooden blocks set into the ground in a herringbone pattern. New road construction techniques no longer required these blocks, so they were discarded. The workers showed me the blocks, which were impregnated with tar, and they chucked a couple onto their fire - they burned like a rocket. Bingo! It occurred to me that these discarded wooden blocks could be made into fire-lighting sticks. I could cut them up into bundles of sticks and flog them to Mr Braham and Mr Morris.
It was an education going into Morris's. This silver-haired little man, who spoke English with a high-pitched Polish accent, was renowned for his computer-like brain - he was a human checkout till. Customers would put their shopping on the counter, he would call out the items and their prices one by one, tot it all up in his head and declare the total. He was magic - faster than a calculator.
Out came the old pram and, with the permission of the workers, I loaded it up with the wooden blocks and took them back to the flats, stacking them in a corner of the playground. I went backwards and forwards collecting these blocks, and by the evening I'd amassed a big pile. Using a small axe we used to have at home - don't ask me why - I set to work chopping them up into sticks. The other kids in the flats thought this looked like fun and they too brought along various implements and helped me out, even though they didn't know why I was doing it.
My dad hoarded all manner of things, including old balls of string. I used some of it to tie the sticks into bundles and as soon as I had a few, I went round to Mr Braham and asked him if he wanted to buy some. He looked at me as if I were nuts. 'I've got enough of this stuff out in my back yard - why would I want any more?'
I knew he'd have a fire going in the back of his shop (as I once worked there on a Saturday before I jumped ship to the greengrocer's down the road) so I chucked on one of the sticks, which burst into flames. He looked at me and smiled, as if to say, 'You little sod - how did you do that?'
Threepence a bundle was the price he said he'd pay, and within two days I'd converted all the stuff and taken it to his yard. The other kids were on to this like a shot, but they didn't have my sales skills.
I wanted to go further afield and deliver to other shops, but this was virtually impossible, as the stuff was heavy and the pram could only hold a limited amount. One of the kids' dad had a van and I suggested to him that if he could get his dad to drive us around, we could widen the empire. I would, of course, share some of the proceeds with him.
He got the green light and we made up a load of bundles and put them in the bike shed. Then we went on the road, so to speak. We took samples, on foot, to the shops down Northwold Road, Southwold Road, Evering Road and into Stoke Newington. The other kid was useless at selling, but his dad was providing the van, albeit on Saturday morning only. We duly loaded the van, delivered the wood to our customers and got paid, and I remember his dad laughing once he realised what we were up to. He was very impressed and joked that I ought to give him some money for petrol. I took him seriously and asked, 'How much then?'
Again, he burst out laughing. 'Nothing - I'm just kidding.'
The following week, as word about my venture spread throughout the fiats, admiring neighbours would say, 'We heard about your sticks, Alan.' And, of course, my mum and dad got wind of it too. By now, my schemes were like water off a duck's back to my parents. The old man couldn't accuse me of any wrongdoing, as he'd seen the road being dug up. All the same, I never saw any signs of pride or heard any congratulations from them for my enterprises. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt about that, as maybe I've just forgotten. All I
remember is my mum laughing or tutting or shrugging her shoulders, and my father shaking his head.
I gave loads of bundles away to the neighbours, as by now they were getting nicked. I had to leave my partner behind to stop the thefts and told him to give out a few bundles to the nice people in the flats. There was, of course, a limit to how many of these blocks I could deal with. What I had stashed away was minute compared to what was available, so you can imagine my frustration when I saw my wooden gold being carted off in lorry-loads, just to be dumped somewhere.
Anyway, in the end, the bigger boys in the flats got in on the action. They started doing the same thing and sort of muscled me out. 'That's it, mate, it's over for you. Get out of the way, we're taking over.' You couldn't argue, as you felt you might get beaten up or something. I wasn't too sorry though, as it was a lot of hard and dirty work to make a relatively small amount of money.
Nevertheless, I learned an important lesson. I think it was Karl Marx who said, 'Catch a man a fish, you can sell it to him. Teach a man to fish, you ruin a wonderful business opportunity.' I'd discovered that as soon as any new business idea is born, up springs the competition. This truism would rear its head time and time again throughout my business life.
my early enterprises made money or got me a pat on the back. At Brooke House, the English teacher, Mr Jones, decided the school should have its own monthly magazine. My brother-in-law Harold Regal (married to Shirley) was a printer, and sometimes in the school holidays I'd go along to the small printing company he owned in Clerkenwell. I'd play around with the printing equipment and watch the compositors line up lead letters in a block and put it on the printing press. As a result, I had the brainwave that the school should buy its own printing machine and, together with one of the other pupils, I would be responsible for producing the school magazine. This idea was put to the deputy headmaster and funds were made available.
I purchased a second-hand Adana printing machine on behalf of the school but, unfortunately, I had bitten off more than I could chew. Anyone in the business who can remember that far back will know how long it took to compose just one page of text on an Adana, never mind the second, third and fourth, etc., and will realise this was a ridiculous venture. The Adana was good for printing business cards or invitations, but not a multi-page job like a magazine. The reality hit home when we attempted to do it - it took us about an hour to set one sentence, forget the whole page. It was highly technical stuff, one of those ideas that sounded good but in practice was impossible. Despite this setback, the school magazine went ahead using the old-fashioned duplicator, and to compensate the school for their disappointment over the printing-machine investment, I took on the role of selling the magazine externally.
The council estate where I lived housed many of my fellow pupils and, like most kids, they never told their mums and dads what went on at school so I took it upon myself to knock on the doors of the kids' parents. My sales patter was that I was representing the school and would they like to buy the magazine for a shilling? After a couple of days' work, I had sold over a hundred copies!
I turned up at Mr Jones's English lesson with the news that I'd earned the school PS5 from sales of the magazine, but that I'd run out of copies and needed some more. You would have thought he'd just won the lottery. The
man was flabbergasted. He asked me how I'd done it and I told him, 'I just visited the parents of the kids in our flats.'