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I bumped into that Alan Sugar on memory lane...
Sweet nostalgia for the PCW generation
Column Alan Sugar reminds me of Hugh Laurie. In the same way that you look at the star of Jeeves and Wooster and House and think: "What a remarkable actor - but he'd have made a brilliant musician!" I look at Sir Alan and think: there goes the man who could have been one of the best journalists in the country.
Two of my wealthiest friends are Alan Sugar and Felix Dennis, and both have now retired from doing what made them so rich. There was a period, back in the early 1980s, where I worked with them both - and what a contrast. One is now a semi-retired TV star (selling Amstrad to Sky) and the other a landowner poet, building forests in the Midlands of England.
What they had in common was an obsession with money. I know quite a few millionaires and a couple of billionaires, and amazingly, some of them made their money almost by accident - but neither Sugar nor Dennis ever had any doubt about it.
Both became pretty well known for doing things which gave no clue to what their main skills were. Felix Dennis became notorious because of a magazine called Oz, which gave editorial control to a bunch of schoolkids; and the resulting edition sent Felix to prison. And Alan Sugar became notorious because he bought a football club, long before he became star of a TV series which portrayed him as a sort of English Donald Trump.
But if you had to go into the office and sit down and do a project with them, they were astonishingly similar in the way they tackled projects. And what marked them out was that either would have made a superb journalist - they wanted to get to the source of everything. They were never content to have committee guesses, they wanted to KNOW.
Felix ended up making his millions selling computers direct to the end user in an age when that was still revolutionary. But the money he needed to set up that operation was made by launching and then selling a magazine, MacUser, in the US. And any computer nerd knows what Sugar did. He started out selling car aerials from the boot of his Ford Cortina and built up an electronics giant from taking that into audio.
I met Sugar when he wasn't known to the general public. Most of us assumed Amstrad audio systems were just another Japanese import. Yet they featured a concept which Sugar could have trade marked: the "mug's eyeful" - something which made an ordinary product look like it had something special about it.
At that time, I'd just started working with Felix. I'd fallen out with one of the bigger publishers in London and, wearing my highest-crested fur-lined huff with the platinum trimmings, took my idea of a fortnightly trade magazine to Bunch Books, where Dennis ran a small team of magazines from motor cycling to Hi-Fi and was thinking of getting into microcomputers. And, though I didn't know it, Sugar was doing the same thing.
The device which got Amstrad noticed wasn't a computer. It was a radio/tape player with an unusual feature: two tape decks. You could put one tape in the left hand drive and press record, and make a copy (naturally, Sugar rejected any suggestion that this was aimed at the pirate business). He'd put this together with Bob Watkins, a technical expert in electronics. And they started out designing a world-beating microcomputer.