Money for old rope: The Apprentice, Episode 6

Oh, the opportunities for cheap jokes – an episode of The Apprentice about disposing of waste. Lord Sugar even cracked a (well-scripted) funny about normally having his rubbish taken away in the back of taxis, but given that the tab is probably on the BBC licence payer, the punchline wasn’t quite so hilarious. (He also has a fair amount of waste ferried from luxury pads to prestige locations in some fairly expensive motors, when an Oystercard might have been more cost-effective. Surely even an East End lad should know the tube goes as far as Richmond?) And considering the episode was about the waste disposal business, there was a significant pile of crap still on display at the end of the programme.

I could update you on who won, although it doesn’t seem to be why anyone watches the programme anyway. I could harp on about the schadenfreude of watching metaphorical stiletto heels being inserted between rivals’ shoulder blades – one reason most of us are watching ­ but that wears thin, even if we are less than halfway through. Watching the whole series is like running a marathon, only it’s your brain that starts to feel like it’s turned to lead. As usual, what stayed with me most at the end of the programme – apart from the moments that counselling and a vodka and tonic have now successfully erased – are the bits where the programme has failed itself and its audience.

The waste disposal business task was spun as an example of making money even when you’ve started with nothing. But these people haven’t started with nothing: if they really were penniless urchins from Hackney, they wouldn’t be on the programme, trying to elevate themselves using only their Prada bootstraps. (Even His Sweetness started out with a hundred nicker, if Wikipedia is to be believed.) They’ve also started with a tipper truck, which materialised out of thin air, and a complete absence of labour costs. If they were covering the costs of premises, repayments on the truck, wages (and NI and the rest) out of the profits they made, they’d be either belly-up or living on bean sprouts. Most people don’t start out in business, capitalised or otherwise, with these bonuses, let alone the connections of a leading entrepreneur and peer of the realm or the backing of a national television channel. (I realised at this point that The Apprentice isn’t described as ‘reality TV’ that often anymore, and with good reason.)

What they didn’t start out with was knowledge. What waste can be salvaged and turned into ‘gold’ (ok, I exaggerate), what the going rates are, how glutted or starved markets for each type are, where they might get the best prices … There were lessons to be drawn about negotiating and risk-taking (the winning team didn’t charge for its services at all, making its winning profit by selling the valuable elements of the waste), but they started their business pre-armed with folders of prices for different types of scrap: I haven’t tried Amazon, but these don’t seem to be generally available. Perhaps one of the candidates phoned a few scrap merchants and asked if they’d sell her a copy?

Without Sugar, the BBC, a free van, a pile of folders and some handy contacts pre-set up, would an Executive Assistant to CEO, a Sales and Marketing Manager, an Inventor, a Global Youth Consultancy Director and a Divisional Recruitment Manager have done quite so well? And wouldn’t one of them have at least realised you could get a couple of people normally described professionally as ‘blokes’ or ‘geezers’ in for half the price and twice the muscle power?  If you turn down the margin business and go all out for risk, you’d better have those costs nailed down tighter than a vampire’s coffin.

It wasn’t just the knowledge bit I was baulking at either: I was struggling with the passion. The passion certainly wasn’t about creating a revolutionary, innovative, customer-focused, market-changing, dynamic (insert a few more adjectives from the bingo sheet if you wish) waste disposal business. It was about money. I wondered quite what field-leading, pioneering, miniscule percentage of us actually want more of the stuff. And then, of course, I realised there was nothing exceptional about not wanting to live on beansprouts at all: even vegans want spring greens and a new pair of canvas stilettoes occasionally. I’d spent an hour watching a programme about the potential margins of old rope – a bizarre mixture of the esoteric and the mundane.

Despite the lecture to Edward in Episode 1 about doing what you do best and the guff about Britain’s finest hopes in the opening credits, what the programme is all about is sniffing out a profit and to hell with how it’s achieved. (No wonder Lord Sugar keeps his nostrils in such an unusual location.) As long as you’re on the winning team, no matter how abysmal or wrong-headed you are, you get a free pass to the next round. (When there’s £6 – less than 1% – in it, this bottom-line focus becomes ludicrously arbitrary.) I’ve not experienced a performance management or appraisal system that works on the basis of the odd verbal slap but no comeback if your arbitrarily composed team makes 1% more than the people down the corridor. For those among us who wonder if the accountants have now wrestled control of the asylum from the lunatics, The Apprentice can’t provide much comfort.

Poor old Steve, sat on his Rotherham sofa, is presumably still gripped by all this. (Although I’d suggest a second opinion to check it’s not actually just catatonia.) Given the fashion for business to be seen to be ‘giving something back to the community’, can I suggest the losing team get cabbed to Yorkshire to take his bins out for him, and see how much they can get for his empty Stella cans once they’ve let themselves out the back door?

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