The Apprentice doyen Claude Littner speaks to Jenny McNicholas about starting his first business at the age of eight, coping with being told he had six months to live and how after a seemingly disastrous job interview with Lord Sugar they went on to become lifelong friends.
From his school days, Claude Littner had a natural appetite for business: “I used to go to the local shop, buy gobstoppers in bulk for ha’penny in those days and sell them to my friends for a penny. I would go home with one pocket full of sweaty gobstoppers and the other full of money.”
Claude has worked alongside Lord Sugar since the early 1990s, most recently as his adviser on the popular BBC One show The Apprentice. He was also the Chairman and Chief Executive of Amstrad International and Dancall, and former Chief Executive of both IT services company Viglen and Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur.
Having been at the helm of multiple organisations, Claude describes his managerial style as Jekyll and Hyde: “The Jekyll in me is that I’m very, very fair. I want to work with people and help them to succeed, so my door is always open in the office and most of my day is spent helping other people to inspire, motivate and guide them. But the other side of my character – the Hyde – comes out if people mislead me, if they really are not serious about work or have a bad effect on the rest of the team. I think I can be quite forceful and have little patience.”
Known for his formidable interviewing style on The Apprentice, Claude has since been appointed as Lord Sugar’s right hand man and adviser.
“The Apprentice is not real life, it’s quite a brutal, tough situation for the candidates. My job isn’t to make life easy for the candidates, it’s to make sure that Lord Sugar gets the best person, because he’s investing £250,000 as a 50% owner in their business. In real life there is no way that you could behave like I do on TV, and it’s certainly not an approach I would recommend. It’s just a character that has grown over time, and the viewers love it so that’s the persona I have been stuck with.”
Although Claude is now an adviser to the business magnate on and off screen, it hasn’t always been that way.
“My first job interview with Lord Sugar was unusual. He didn’t say a word to me or make eye contact.
So I started talking about myself and, after a while, he got up and said ‘bored!’ and walked out. He’d actually said, ‘I’ll talk to the board.’ He hired me as Chairman and CEO of Amstrad International that day.
“But now that I understand Lord Sugar’s character, it probably wasn’t all that unusual in that he has a particular way of assessing people. What it boils down to is that you have to prove yourself. He gave me the opportunity of a fantastic job and, from my point of view, I just had to make sure I succeeded, worked very hard and made the best that I possibly could of the situation.
“Good trust builds up and our friendship really developed when I was at Tottenham Hotspur, which at the time was a really tough company to run. Due to the nature of the business, we would go and watch the games with our families, so our children became friends as well as our wives.
“I guess a combination of being an honest, open, hard working individual and also having the opportunity of social interaction led the way to becoming work colleagues and friends.”
Claude’s fearlessness was put to the test in 1997 when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and endured three tough years of chemotherapy.
“I was told I had six months to live. It was very serious and certainly focused my mind on my mortality. I have been cancer-free since 2000.”
Now living in North London, Claude spends some of his time working as a Visiting Professor at the Claude Littner Business School at the University of West London, which was launched in 2014 to share his knowledge and expertise with hopeful entrepreneurs. As a former student of the Business School, he is a dedicated supporter of the University.
“The landscape for entrepreneurs has changed vastly. Increasingly, graduates are setting up businesses from
their garage or even dining room, because it’s becoming progressively difficult to find a job, so I think people’s minds are being turned to entrepreneurship and running a business.
“But I do urge graduates to understand that a good idea doesn’t necessarily make for a good business. While there are lots of people who look around at successful entrepreneurs and think ‘well I’d like to be like that’, it doesn’t always translate into success. You’ve got to be realistic about your opportunities and make sure what you’ve actually got to start a business is truly going to materialise into one, opposed to it just being a hobby.
“In the early days of starting in business you do get knocked back and swept aside so you have to be resilient and you need to have an aptitude for it. There are some people who might have all kinds of qualifications but that doesn’t necessarily qualify them for a career in business.”
Claude has recently launched a new book titled Single minded: My life in business, which is available to buy through Amazon.
Writer: Jenny McNicholas
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