Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
One day he was making his pitch, he had the audience all teed up, and just as he reached the crescendo and was about to announce the final punchline - I don't know what possessed me - suddenly I blurted it out.
If looks could kill, I'd have been stone dead there and then.
When the crowd dispersed he got hold of Manny and started shouting at him. 'What is this kid doing? Is he mad? Is he crazy? Tell him to shut up.'
I really got it in the neck from the guy and Manny. Mind you, Manny should have known I couldn't be relied on to keep quiet. When my brother and sisters came over on Friday nights for dinner, they'd inevitably end up playing cards and Manny would sometimes be in the card school. They'd play for pennies or shillings, but took it very seriously. I used to sit there watching studiously and sometimes I'd say something that disclosed one of the player's tactics. I'd quickly be told to keep my mouth shut.
Around Christmas time I worked with Manny and his father in Ridley Road market. At that time of year they changed their wares. They put their foam rubber into storage and decked out the stall with toys: dolls, Meccano sets, children's cars and prams, and so on.
Mr Phillips, Manny's father, was quite a tough person. I recall one day watching him sell a very large doll which came in a presentation box. I don't remember the exact price, but let's say it was PS3. Shortly after he sold it, a lady came up to the stall and asked me how much the same doll was.
'Three pounds,' I said immediately.
Sharp as a needle, Mr Phillips jumped in. 'What are you talking about, you idiot - it's much more than three pounds.'
He then turned to the lady. 'I'm sorry, dear, he's made a terrible mistake - it's not three pounds, it's much more than that. I'm sorry, love.'
I was dumbfounded. Had I made a giant error? I didn't think so.
Mr Phillips continued: 'Okay, dear - look, we're honest traders down here. This stupid boy offered it to you for three pounds - what can I do? I'm gonna have to stick to it. Okay, love, you can have it for three quid if you want.'
The lady obviously felt she had a bargain. Meanwhile, I was still standing there gobsmacked.
When the lady had parted with her money and taken the doll, I said to Mr Phillips, 'I'm sorry I made a mistake.'
You would have thought he'd say, 'Don't worry, kid, I didn't mean it -
know you didn't make a mistake. I was just using a bit of salesmanship.'
But instead, he said, 'Well, you're not getting paid today - forget it.'
'What are you talking about?' I complained. 'I saw you sell that doll for three pounds no more than an hour ago. I thought I was doing the right thing.'
'No, you didn't. No, you didn't.' And he smiled and walked away.
Being only twelve, I genuinely believed I wasn't going to get paid that day. On the way home in the van, Manny and his father continued the charade and I was nearly in tears.
When we arrived back at the flats, they said, 'Here's your money - we were only joking.' Bastards.
This was one of life's lessons. The joke was cruel, of course, but at the same time I understood how astute Mr Phillips had been, making that customer feel she'd got a bargain.
Back to the man in Chelmsford market. Let me tell you, he is no different from the suited and booted executive with a fancy PowerPoint presentation, trying to sell Rolls-Royce engines to Boeing. The commodity may be different, the environment may be different, but the presentation and selling skills are exactly the same - and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Just as the suited and booted chap is fully conversant with the technicalities of his engines, the stallholder in Chelmsford market knows all about the cotton content of his towels and sheets. And at the end of the day, both people present their specifications and prices to the end customer.
During my schooldays, in spite of my sidelines and ventures, I still had time for recreation. This mainly centred around the local youth clubs, predominantly
the Jewish ones. There was a club in Lea Bridge Road where I'd go with some of my friends from Northwold Road School and get up to all the usual shenanigans you'd expect at these places. The youth club also encouraged us to get involved in charitable work.
There is often talk of 'the school of hard knocks' - a way of toughening you up. In those days, people said that sending young men into the army to give them some backbone was a way of making the man. I don't want to undermine the tremendous devotion and bravery shown by our soldiers, both male and female, in all the campaigns they have served in for this country, but I will say, with the greatest respect, that the army doesn't hold the monopoly on toughening people up.
Some childhood incidents, which I can now laugh about, have stuck in my mind. I volunteered to do some work for Meals on Wheels, a charity service providing food to old people. I would assist the adult who drove the van, running up and down stairs to deliver the food.
In one particular case, I had to deliver to an old lady who lived on the sixth floor of a block of flats. The flats had a lift, but it smelt like Battersea Dogs' Home, so I used the stairs. Having climbed the six floors, I knocked on the door and this eighty-year-old Jewish lady opened it. She had grey hair, some whiskers growing from her chin and bloomers hanging down around her knees. Frightened enough by this sight, I handed over the meal. She ripped the top off and shouted at me, 'You call this meatballs?!'
When I think of this now, bloody hell, I could have been scarred for life - never mind being up to your neck in muck and bullets in the trenches. You don't want to know what she did with the milk-free ice-cream dessert.
My involvement with the Lea Bridge Road youth club had another, less amusing outcome after my Bar Mitzvah. In order to be Bar Mitzvah'd, at the age of thirteen, one has to learn all the Jewish laws and rules. To me, this was absolute torture. From about the age of eleven I had to go to Hebrew classes directly after school on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, plus Sunday mornings. It was a nightmare, but it was a way Jewish families conformed and was a strict discipline that my mother and father insisted upon.
From this, you might get the impression that my parents were fanatically religious Jews. In fact, the complete opposite is true. My mum had some very funny ways. When she was a teenager, she ran a strictly kosher home in accordance with her father's wishes, but when it came to her own family, despite knowing the full monty about kashrus (Jewish dietary laws), she would buy all her meat from the kosher butcher's, but then serve it up
followed by a dessert containing milk - a forbidden combination, as one of the rules of kashrus states that meat and milk may not be served in the same meal.
In my opinion, these crazy dietary laws were crafted by hypocrites. Anyway, because of Mum's odd ways, we didn't conform, although my mum
delight in shutting down the kitchen on Yom Kippur - no one was allowed to eat, so she had a day off. Other than that, we enjoyed the best of the Jewish food we liked and avoided the food we didn't like. We ate more or less what we fancied, with no regard to rules or tradition. When it came to observing the Jewish holidays, my dad would take me to the synagogue but we certainly weren't regular visitors. The only tradition Mum and Dad kept was to invite all our immediate family round every Friday night for dinner.
After my Bar Mitzvah, the many friends I had at the Lea Bridge Road youth club became distant for some reason. I can remember being rejected by one particular individual, a boy called Harvey, who made it plain I was no longer his friend. Before that, Harvey and I had been close pals, seeing each other as much as we could. He would come to my flat and I would go to his house. He came from a better background than mine. His mother once said to me, 'You don't speak very nicely.' I guess that was due to the people I mixed with in my flats or at school. I was a Cockney.
Certain people in the Jewish community wanted to elevate themselves. They sent their children to schools which had special elocution classes. This segregation created Jews who didn't want to be associated with normal Jews, which I think is strange. On reflection, I suppose that Harvey's mum leant on him and told him not to hang around with me any more. I often wondered what I might have done wrong, but, in all honesty, the only explanation I can find for Harvey's behaviour was that his family became aware I was from a much poorer background than theirs.
He wasn't the only friend I lost. Traditionally, Bar Mitzvah boys are thrown a lavish party to which all family and friends are invited. This was not the case with me, as my mother and father could not afford such an affair. Instead we had a small get-together at home. The boys at the youth club, however, thought that they'd not been invited to some glamorous Bar Mitzvah party. One prick by the name of Elkham Miller and his sidekick Michael Marsham actually spelled this out to me shortly afterwards. They said the reason they didn't talk to me any more was that they weren't invited to my Bar Mitzvah party. When I told them I hadn't had a party, they simply didn't believe it. It's strange how thirteen-year-olds can be damaged by the reactions of those who they thought were their friends.
Possibly the British Psychological Society will use extracts of this book as a new case study in their journals, explaining how this is a classic textbook case, how the inner damage caused gave rise to hidden personality swings that are exposed when certain events spark off memories. What a load of bollocks! Do you know, there's a whole industry in this! And some people
for it! Have I missed out on that particular enterprise? Amspsych Ltd
No, it doesn't have a nice ring to it.
By the way, this is not an invitation for
to call me up for an in-depth interview, put me to sleep and take me back to when I was thirteen. Forget it! But cop the next chapter - any budding psych reading this will think they've won the lottery, because from that moment on I became a recluse. For about two years, I didn't want to socialise with anybody.
School Days - 'Sugar's Got Rolls of Film for Three Bob'
While my social life was non-existent, I still kept busy with work and my hobbies. Sometimes they combined, as with the Saturday job I took in a chemist's in Walthamstow High Street market. Having found that I enjoyed science and engineering at school (in contrast to some of the more boring subjects such as history and the arts), I thought pharmacy might be the way to go, and naively I figured I would learn about it on the job. The shop was owned by a very nice man called Michael Allen. When I told him I aspired to be a pharmacist, he taught me as much as he possibly could about drugs and that sort of stuff.
I spent most of my time in the front of the shop selling cough syrups and lozenges. Here I was, a young kid, being asked by punters what cough syrup they should take. Mr Allen taught me to ask if it was a chesty cough or a dry cough. For chesty, you got a bottle of Benylin; for dry, you got a bottle of Pholcodine Linctus.
Mr Allen was a bit of a boffin who knew all the technical pharmaceutical stuff, but in my opinion lacked a bit of business savvy. I introduced one of my marketing ideas to him and his staff. When asked by the customer for a bottle of, say, Milk of Magnesia, if you were to reply, 'Small or large?' most punters would say, 'Small.' Much better to ask, 'Do you want the small 1s6d one or the extra-value 2s 6d one?' I applied this to lots of things in the shop, ranging from Old Spice aftershave to cough syrup, and it worked nine times out of ten.
There were exceptions to this rule. Packets of Durex, for example, came in both economy and bulk packs, but I wasn't going to ask a strapping six-foot-tall punter if he wanted the small pack - it could have been taken the wrong way.
Now, here's a bit of trivia you may find as surprising as I did: a large
number of married women would buy contraceptives as part of their weekly shop, on behalf of their lazy husbands. At first, as a young lad of fifteen, I was a bit embarrassed when a woman asked me for them, but after a while it was like water off a duck's back. However, when it came to Tampax or sanitary towels, I certainly wasn't going to try my 'small or extra-value' scam. Instead, it was a case of: 'They're over there, madam, help yourself That was where I drew the line. After all, there was a limit on how far you'd go for the boss!
It was at Mr Allen's shop that I also developed my interest in photography, which was sparked by the cameras, film and developing paper he sold. I couldn't afford a good camera, but I soon picked up tips on which model was the most economic to buy. This information was going to be useful because another sideline I had in mind was to become a photographer. While I scraped together the money to buy a Halina camera, I was already working out what to say to my parents. I had visions of my father shaking his head in disapproval when I brought it home. Another waste of money,' he'd say, while my mother would shrug her shoulders and ask, 'How much was that?' All this despite the fact that I was paying for it myself!
difficult for me to justify laying out PS12 for a camera when the old man got PS8 for doing a week's work, so I tried to save his pride with answers such as, 'I'm paying off for it to Mr Allen,' which, to be fair, I did do when it came to my next camera - the Yashica, a poor man's Rolleifiex.