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BBC The Apprentice (4) – More Shabby Than Chic


Pensive Jane




BBC The Apprentice (4) – More Shabby Than Chic

Best comment of the week: the woman at the car boot sale to the PITA (Pain in…) Apprentices “yes you can have it for a £ if you promise to go away.” All good deal-makers are good negotiators: not all good negotiators are good deal-makers. In a good deal, negotiation is a means to a greater end. For the instinctive negotiator the negotiation is an end in itself; variously a symbol of virility, power, control, domination, self-belief etc. Instinctive negotiators thrive on one-off trades in a ‘competitive’ i.e aggressive environment. In the round, business activity is a process within a framework of established conventions – obligatorily legal and voluntarily honest. The opportunity for the few to cheat, dissemble and deceive is predicated upon a form of life, a set of values the majority believe in and conform to. Not all £10 notes can be forgeries: or the notion of a valid currency is fatally undermined and will not be accepted as a token of value.

Occasionally on The Apprentice one sees a good negotiator who understands the balance between a good, or as we often put it, a ‘fair’ price and screwing something more out of the seller; often as in the case above, because they’ll concede just to get rid of you and resolve never to do business with you again.

Two fundamentally false elements of business as practiced on The Apprentice: they are never given enough time to achieve their tasks; and even more important they are literally fly-by-night sellers – coin it and run. Whether in their own businesses Apprentices would flog any crap they can; try to offload sub-standard goods; or piss-off customers and suppliers alike, is an interesting issue. I will leave you dear reader to decide how close this philosophy is to that which drives Lord ‘Barley’ Sugar.

If a novice surgeon after his first operation says “well that was OK but I can do it better and I am passionate about doing it as well as I can.” Or a new teacher says the same of a lesson; a policeman of detecting a crime etc etc, we would I suggest be impressed, and rightly so. If someone says I am passionate about persuading people that this cheap crap is actually special as ‘shabby chic’ or desirably ‘retro’ in order that I can make as much profit from the process as possible – do we feel the same unqualified approval? Do we want young people to be passionate about this kind of activity in this kind of way? Does this define an entrepreneur; or is that rather more someone who takes pride in creating a new product or innovative service that people either want or come to want when made aware of it, for which they get value for their money and the entrepreneur gets satisfaction from which a good profit is a symbol of success not its fundamental aim? Week in, week out it is depressing to watch young people who either have a degraded conception of the kind of activity business is, or encouraged into to such a corrupted view through the tone and ethical atmosphere created by the producers and ably expressed by Alan Sugar.

Salesmen rewarded simply on what they sell, irrespective of who they sell to, i.e without an understanding of what the buyer can realistically, over time, be expected to afford, are toxic. The US sub-prime disaster was the inexorably logical outcome of separating these two profoundly linked concepts. Good salesmanship is the servant not the master of a successful business.

An unusual week: a project leader who thought out a strategy; implemented it; resisted undermining criticism and won without raising his voice. Tom Gearing has been off radar for the three shows so far but did well this week. Whereas the standard thinking model for Apprentices is to think from the hip and assume they know everything already; one had the impression that Tom had thought his strategy through and in so doing displayed an understanding of good merchandising among other things. Even allowing for the quirky unpredictability of buyers who will see something desirable in junk, it does take more than just giving it a fancy name like ‘retro’ or ‘shabby chic’. Paradoxically if you’re buying junk you need to be selective. More importantly Tom’s ‘less-is-more’ strategy was right on the button by creating a sense that there was something special about what everybody including BBS (Baron Barley Sugar) euphemistically called ‘upcycling’ objects, by presenting them well – uncluttered and with space to see and be seen.

It was touch and go though: Sterling’s buy as much as possible, tart it up and rely on undiscriminating customers to buy, matched Phoenix for gross revenue. For once this was an instructive week as it demonstrated the value of careful control of costs and setting and sticking to a budget.

Otherwise a largely risibility-free week though Duane’s “don’t look a gift horse in the eye” was a nicely muddled piece of advice; and Nick Hewer may live to regret saying that Karen Hardy “carries a lot of weight”.

We had to endure the usual unseemly shouting match in the ‘Boardroom’ as Laura turned on Gabrielle to save her own skin. But I return to my basic view: the person responsible for behaviour in the Boardroom is the Chairman, the Boss. Good CEO’s, leaders, don’t gratuitously mock their colleagues: this week “he must have thought he had a real bunch of idiots”. BBS’s contempt for what he called the ‘arty, farty’ people was no surprise but it does make one wonder whether the better salesman you become the more contempt you develop for your customers.

It is clear that free-market capitalism is currently the only economic game in town. We are told that our duty as citizens is to spend; and economic recovery and full employment rest on exponential growth in the quantity of business activity irrespective of quality and social value. That this strategy is on a collision course with a planet with finite resources seems to be a conundrum that does not politically compute.

I too put this in the ‘too hard’ box but can’t help feeling that a first step might be to make the nature of business, the values it recognises and promotes, of a kind that we can feel comfortable for young people to have a passionate commitment to them. In this respect The Apprentice, though only a TV show, seems shallow and unduly cynical in form and content.



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