Who wants a millionaire's advice?

28th November 1997 at 00:00
MILLIONAIRE businessman Alan Sugar went back to school last month to give would-be entrepreneurs a lesson in self-employment. The Amstrad boss and Tottenham Hotspur chairman fielded questions from an audience of students and young businesspeople at Hackney Community College, east London, and urged more industrialists to do the same.

"Businesspeople should be going into schools, and colleges should spend more time procuring the services of local businesspeople," he said.

His school days - spent at Brooke House school on the site of the college - were an inspiring mixture of academic and vocational pursuits, he recalled. "At one end of the school there were kids reading Shakespeare and at the other you could be learning bricklaying. I spent most of my time in the engineering department."

His headmaster, Mr Harris, spotted his potential quite by accident. "Every so often he would see me and say, 'You're in the commerce department, aren't you', and I would say, 'No, Sir, I'm in the engineering department'. But at the end of the day he had it right."

The tycoon revealed that his original ambition was to be a scientist but, after a succession of dead-end jobs selling tape recorders and a stint in statistics, he set up his own business. "It dawned on me that I could do this for myself."

He bought some car aerials for #163;100, spent #163;80 on a second-hand mini-van and drove around to wholesalers until he had sold them, then went back and bought more with the proceeds.

He hit upon a cheap method of making plastic dust covers for record players - "I found you could make them by injection moulding for three and sixpence and they were selling for 18 shillings" - and set up his first factory in nearby Dalston Lane.

Within the year he had outgrown those premises and was on the way to making his first million pounds. He puts his success down to finding a niche market, working hard and dealing honestly with his customers: "My handshake is as good as having the money in the bank."

But he never imagined he would achieve the level of success he has. "You shouldn't set yourself targets to own an airline or a football club. You may employ just one or two people and that's great - what's important is that you start somewhere. I never started my business believing it was going to be an empire - I just wanted to earn a bit of money."

However, his early business guile was tempered by a certain innocence about business practice. "I went to the bank manager for my first loan, very nave, without an accountant to back me up, and said, 'I want some money', and the bank manager said, 'There's the door'."

He advised that fledgling businesspeople get practical experience before spreading their wings. "If you want to run your own business, I think it's a bit risky to do that straight out of college. Get the experience first - a couple of years working for someone else. All you learn in college is really just a foundation for what goes on in the outside world. I can't stress that enough."

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