19 June 2011

When I saw the line up of an upcoming event that showed Tony Robbins and Sir Richard Branson as the headline speakers, I was immediately taken aback to see Alan Sugar’s name appear a few weeks later.

What is it about this man? He keeps on popping up on British TV, yet he lacks the finesse of Branson and the passion of Robbins. He most certainly lacks the humility that you’ll find in abundance in the other two great men.

He comes across as a self-opinionated man who likes putting people down to make himself feel better. And by surrounding himself with sycophantic people who do not openly challenge him, it is no surprise that he slipped up this week, telling engineer Glenn Ward (as he fired him on BBC’s reality TV show The Apprentice), ‘I have never yet come across an engineer who can turn his hands to business.’

Is he right? Are engineers poor business people?

Actually, to put this into perspective and illustrate just how ridiculously dumb this statement is, you have to look at other generalisations like racism, agism etc. White people can’t dance, black people can’t swim. They are just preposterous and there is no place for generalisations in today’s society. It’s so important that people stand out from the crowd. Isn’t that what entrepreneurialism is all about?

There will always be some people that fall into sweeping generalisations like this. However, no generalisation can cover all people.

Sugar just created his own new ism, engineeringism. You can’t take a group of people and publicly denounce them on National television.

Correct me if I am wrong but engineering is a trade. It is something learnt. So, why would people who chose to learn engineering as a skill be any worse or any better than people who study music, martial arts, French or whatever else takes their fancy? Actually, history tells us that the people who learn the skills have a competitive advantage when setting up businesses where these skills are required.

The moment I heard this bigoted comment, I immediately thought of James Dyson, an engineer who cleaned up after revolutionising the vacuum industry. Dyson’s fortune, estimated by the Sunday Times Richlist at £1.45bn, is almost double that of Lord Sugar’s £770m. It’s safe to say that Dyson changed the world and is in another league.

Lord Sugar defended his remarks: “I was drawing on my experience, having dealt with thousands of engineers over the years. That said, I accept the odd example that has been outlined, although James Dyson has told me many times he is an inventor not an engineer.”

Dyson’s own description of himself as an “inventor” just demonstrates his humility, the trait so lacking in Sugar.

When you start to unravel the list of great entrepreneurs over time, engineers do play a huge part.

What car would Sugar be chauffeured in if Rolls hadn’t met Royce in the Midland Hotel, Manchester, back on 4th May 1904? Royce was an amazing engineer and entrepreneur. Ironically, he was one of the first proper apprentices too, not the wooly TV type.

Royce started his trade in 1878 when he started an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway company at its works in Peterborough. When he ran out of money after 3 years, he joined a tool-making company in Leeds, before joining the Electric Light and Power Company. He had a stint making dynamos and electric cranes and one of his first factories opened in Trafford Park, Manchester, a stone’s throw from where we built UKFast’s first Data Centre.

After seeing the equipment being delivered and installed to our new DC, I have the utmost respect for engineers. From the generators to the cabling, it’s remarkable the technology that we take for granted because it’s out of sight.

It seems that the greatest revelations of all time are born out of engineering discoveries and brilliance. The Internet is probably the biggest of them all and, if not, it is certainly the incubator for the engineers of tomorrow. Giving life to other great engineers like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who is giving the Google boys a run for their money.

What gets my goat is that Sugar continues to set such a bad example to fellow entrepreneurs of how to behave in business and, worse still, he gives the public a very one-dimensional view of what business is really like.

The great business people that I have met are like the great people from all walks of life. They are warm, kind and giving. We can all go through life taking but to truly get anything of note out of life, you have to put in without expecting anything in return.

Only when you arrive at this outcome will you be truly fulfilled.

There are probably a few incredibly rich people reading this and thinking “*ollocks,” yet the very same people who think that they are the pinnacle of their existence are the people who need to go back to the basics more than most.

I am not trying to be judgemental. It works for me. The day after my avalanche accident, I stopped worrying about what other people think and I just got on with doing what felt right. Then one day, years later, I just woke up and everything was rosy. I am not saying that everything is perfect in my life. I am a million miles from where I’d like to be as a person. I have so much to do to improve if I am going to hit some of my goals but I know what needs to be done and I choose very different people to Alan Sugar to aspire to. I once asked Branson if there is anyone in business who has inspired him. We were running at the time. He said firmly, “No.” Then he paused and said, “I do admire Nelson Mandela.” After another pause, “And Desmond Tutu.”

This supports my point that to be great, you should follow great people. It doesn’t matter if they are in a different walk of life. Great people will have similarities in their behaviour that help make them successful. Likewise, idiots have a habit of copying daft things!

On the subject of being an engineer, I surround myself with them because I admire the skills that I would so much love to posses. Being an entrepreneur allows me to tap into the engineering world and marvel at the things that are made possible nowadays.

Given the choice to aspire to be like Dyson, Royce, Sugar? I gave up Sugar a long time ago.

So, next time you watch The Apprentice, notice that he has a boardroom chair that is bigger and taller than everyone else’s. Lord Alan Sugar should stop taking himself too seriously and someone should tell him that people watch the show because of the uncertainty of who is going to be axed next and not for him. Sorry Alan 🙂

It’s good to see other business people, and prominent ones at that, speaking out about Sugar’s stupidity. Will King, founder of the King of Shaves grooming business (himself a mechanical engineering graduate) said he was ‘saddened’ by Lord Sugar’s very public statement, dismissing the abrasive business leader as ‘out of touch’.


Controversial comments: Lord Sugar has said engineers are business failures


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