Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
My education took place twelve years after Daphne's and Derek's, so my parents were in a twelve-year time warp. They expected their children to start contributing financially to the running of the home when they reached an age suitable for employment. Just as soon as Shirley, Derek and Daphne were earning money, they had to part with some of it to go towards housekeeping. This was quite normal in those days.
Then I came along and was earning more money on the side with my various ventures than I would have done if I'd left school at fifteen and worked in a factory. I was deemed to be an
by my parents. They let me stay on at school to better myself and
something; not just a factory worker. As if I needed them to tell me that! I was already bunging Mum the odd few quid here and there from my various enterprises, so park that aspect to one side. Nevertheless, as far as they were concerned, there needed to be a justification for why I was staying on at school.
They'd ask, 'What are you going to be? What are you going to do? What do all these exams make you into? A doctor? A lawyer? An accountant?'
My answer was that I wanted to do something in the science professions. As far as my mother and father were concerned, that meant maybe a chemist or a pharmacist. They wouldn't have even thought about the job of a researcher (who doesn't actually work in a shop dispensing pills) or somebody inventing something in a high-technology industry.
You have to sympathise with their outlook on life and employment. Understandably, it came as a great disappointment to them when I told them, halfway through studying for A Levels, that I was going to jack it in. I made the decision shortly after my return from the summer holidays, a week or so into the upper-sixth. They wanted to know: 'Why did you bother to get these GCEs? What are you going to do now?'
This was further aggravated by Shirley's husband Harold, who had a weird sense of humour and would try to capitalise on the dilemma facing me and my parents over choosing a career. He famously interjected once by saying, 'Why are you bothering? Become a dustman - they pay them loads of money these days.' This little chant of Harold's was one he would repeat at certain milestones in my life - not in a nasty way, I hasten to add, but to remind himself of what he'd said so many years earlier.
My reason for leaving school was that my best friends were taking on jobs. Malcolm was working in a radio and TV store as a television engineer. Funnily enough this store was opposite Mr Allen's, and we'd often meet each other on Saturdays and discuss what we were getting up to that night. Geoff was trying to pursue a career in the fashion industry on the administration and sales side. Steve was working for his parents' firm, making lemonade. And Tony - well, sorry, but he was just a rich man's son. He was talking about going to Africa to do some goody-goody work, but if you ask me, it was to bunk off getting a real job. They all had cars except me. So, in summary, the reason for me leaving school was to get a job with wheels.
I went to see the headmaster to tell him about my decision. Mr Harris wasn't happy at all. He felt I had the potential to stay on and complete the A Level courses. Nevertheless, he accepted my decision and pointed me in the direction of the careers officer who informed me of the opportunities available in technology. Apparently, being a computer programmer was becoming very popular and he arranged for me to take IBM's aptitude test - a way of evaluating if a candidate had what it takes to be a programmer. Thinking of this now puts a smile on my face, having employed hundreds of computer programmers in my lifetime and watched them sitting around in their sandals and jeans flicking elastic bands at each other.
I went along to IBM's offices in Wigmore Street where the staff were very polite. Once we'd finished our exam papers, they sent us off to have lunch in the canteen while they marked them. They let the people who were clearly of no interest to them go and I was one of those people.
I also sat a similar exam at ICL in Putney. Once again, I got the Dear John letter. Obviously I wasn't cut out for computer programming.
Funny how things work out. Twenty-four years later I entered into a Licensing Agreement with IBM which resulted in me taking 30 per cent of the European personal computer market away from them. And, please excuse my boast, I now own IBM's European headquarters building on London's South Bank, which I bought for PS112 million. Anyway, moving on . . .
News of my failure at both IBM and ICL filtered back to the school and I
was summoned to Mr Harris's office. Again he told me that I should stay and pursue my A Levels in subjects more suitable to me, such as economics. I reminded him again that I was not in the economics division but in
science and engineering,
but he simply could not accept it. There was no moving him. I was equally adamant that I was going to leave school.
I didn't tell my mother and father about the IBM and ICL episodes, but intent on finding a job, I started to look in the vacancies columns of the national newspapers. I spotted an advert from the Ministry of Education and Science who required applicants with GCE passes to join their statistics division. Naively, the word 'science' attracted me. I had visions of being involved in scientific experiments - missiles, rockets and the like.
I went to the Ministry's Curzon Street building and was interviewed by a very high-ranking civil servant, Miss Mayer, HEO (Higher Executive Officer), a middle-aged lady with silver hair and a very posh accent. I'll never forget that interview because while we were talking she was fiddling around with a large pearl necklace. It broke, and suddenly all the pearls fell to the floor. She was terribly embarrassed, as was I. We scrambled around picking up pearls all over the place.
During the interview I'd thrown in a few buzzwords like 'digits' and 'data, which made me look like I knew what I was talking about, and I got the job. And because I had six GCE passes, I was given the level of CO (Clerical Officer) - one up on the pecking order from the ordinary plebs in the department.
The job paid PS32 per month - PS8 a week in East End terms - and they wanted to pay it directly into my bank account. We'd never had bank accounts in my family, but my sister Shirley explained to me what I needed to do. So, shortly after joining the Ministry, I walked out of Curzon Street into Berkeley Square and looked for a bank. There was one on the right-hand side - Lloyds. In I walked, armed with a letter confirming my employment at the Ministry, and asked to open a bank account. I've been with Lloyds ever since that day in 1963.
Remember the famous advert with Maureen Lipman as a Jewish grandmother on the phone to her grandson, telling him how clever he was with his 'ology'? Well, having reported to my mother and father that I was now working at the Ministry of Education and Science as a clerical officer, I was hailed as the first person in the family to have what was deemed a
job. 'My son, the clerical officer in the Ministry.'
If they only knew!
And Leaving To Be 'A Bloody Salesman'
Even though I was only sixteen, I wasn't at all nervous turning up on the first day. I was all suited and booted and raring to go. The Curzon Street office was in the heart of Mayfair. It was a very large and ugly block of grey concrete - exactly what you'd expect a government building to look like. I entered the building, stepped into the lift and the operator greeted me with 'Good morning, sir,' and took me up to my floor. I reported to an EO (Executive Officer), a woman in her thirties who showed me to my desk in a large open-plan office while the other people glanced up for a moment to suss out the new boy.
In a weak moment, I reported the lift operator calling me 'sir' to my family one Friday night. They were so proud.
they call him! Can you believe that?'
Anyway, this job turned out to be double brain damage. On the first day, a pile of papers was plonked in front of me and I was informed by my EO that I was working on something called the Plowden Report on Junior Education.
In case you care, Lord Plowden had promised to come up with a report on primary school education and the pile of papers was the result of manual surveys on individual pupils across a whole section of the country. My job was to go through each form and code the answers to enable the data to be entered into an IBM punch-card computer system. This would result in a print-out telling you how many little Johnnies drank their quarter-pints of milk every day at school. If that wasn't bad enough, many of the people surrounding me were a breed of robot, the likes of which I'd never come across before. To say they were boring would be too kind. The highlight of their day came during the tea break, when they'd debate the virtues of using Marvel powdered milk as opposed to conventional milk that might go off if you kept it for two or three days. Scintillating stuff, as you can imagine.
At first, I would sit quietly on my own. Like all new people joining an organisation, I had to go through that period when people stare at you and try to get the measure of what you're like. The employees around me weren't my cup of tea, so there wasn't much dialogue when I first started. Thankfully, after a few weeks, I found that some of the younger staff, particularly the girls doing the typing and clerical tasks, were more my kind of people. I struck up a working relationship with them, and a couple of the fellows, and we secretly laughed and joked about some of the weirdoes working in the organisation, as you do.
At the age of sixteen, I was eligible to pass a motorbike driving test and I decided to get a Lambretta scooter, a rather fashionable machine at that time of mods and rockers. It cost me fifty quid from some bloke in Edgware. I justified it to my mother and father by saying it would save me a lot of money on the bus fare to Curzon Street. Well, at least I had some wheels.
I did what everybody else did with their bikes: stripped it down and had the side panels chromium-plated and the main body sprayed - in my case, a luminescent mauve. I would proudly park this motorbike outside the offices in Curzon Street where its gleaming side panels were much admired by the younger members of staff in the department.
The bike was very useful for running me and my pal Geoff Salt around. I'd often drop him off at his various girlfriends' houses, including one adventure into the depths of South London, to Dulwich, when I got a flat tyre for my troubles.
As a learner driver, you had to display L-plates, which wasn't very cool. I decided it would look better if I cut out the letter L from the white background and stuck it on the front and rear of the bike, only to be stopped one day by a copper who pulled me over and asked, 'What's that L for? L for love? L for luck? Get off that bike and go and buy yourself some proper L-plates.'
This was all rather embarrassing, considering I was in Oxford Street, suited and booted, on a Saturday night. I was in somewhat of a fix with the copper standing next to me. Where was I supposed to go at eight o'clock at night to get L-plates? I asked for dispensation so that I could at least drive the bike to another location where I could park it. After a bit of negotiation, the copper reluctantly agreed, but told me I wasn't allowed to ride it back home until I had proper L-plates. Fortunately, he didn't hang around and after that evening's ventures I naughtily broke the law and drove the bike back to Clapton. I replaced the L-plates the following Monday. I passed my motorbike driving test in Walthamstow My current licence still says I can ride a motorbike, although I haven't been on one since.
Back at the Ministry, for once there was a bit of excitement. Miss Mayer came storming into the department and asked me to step into her office. She was having a high-level meeting with a load of top-ranking officials. From what I could glean, the Plowden Report had gone tits-up and they wanted me to explain a few things. That's how bad it was there - they had to get a sixteen-year-old kid to explain to them what was going wrong.
It transpired that a bunch of punch-card operators had entered the data incorrectly, so they asked me to review the print-out and compare it with some of the forms that I had coded. There were thousands of these forms. I said if they gave me a couple of these clerks to sit with, I'd help them read the data, so they could input the whole lot again.
They agreed and, believe it or not, they put me in charge of five or six people, some of them my seniors by ten years or more. They'd be asking me, 'What's this, Alan? What's wrong with that? What shall I do with this? What does that mean?'
I got on really well with them and they soon started taking the mickey out of me. 'You're Miss Mayer's favourite,' they'd say. 'Miss Mayer's son.' But they respected the fact that I was one of them. I hadn't snitched or dropped them in it for the big cock-up first time around. Within a couple of days, I had them sorted out, and I was sitting at my desk with my feet up.
After about two weeks, we'd done the whole lot again. I guess the printouts must have made some sense this time because Miss Mayer told me that I'd done a good job - I suppose the data suited what they wanted to see. However, there were no tips or bonuses going - let's face it, this was the government.
Eight quid a week was all well and good, but it wasn't enough for me to keep up with my mates. I saw the job at the Ministry as something of an investment, so that one day I would end up not having to worry about income. In the meantime, I needed to supplement my earnings. I'd kept my job at the chemist's shop plus a few other ventures, and it was a rather weird situation - I was earning less from my career than I was from my sidelines!