Two Roads Diverged�

Once again, the cause of the losing team�s failure is absolutely clear

� and once again, the same problem plagued both teams

� and also, once again, Lord Sugar�s opening remarks presaged the key problem: it�s almost as if he knows what he�s talking about. Fancy that!

But the response within each team could not have been more different and that, as Robert Frost said, �made all the difference�.

The Task

The two teams had to design, brand, package, and sell a new condiment.� Lord Sugar�s opening remarks were that, to get the sales, the teams had to:

  • Understand the ingredients
  • Carefully calculate the formula
  • Get the branding and package design right

All three contributed to the perfect storm of failure for the losing team, but along the way, we started to learn more about some of the candidates who are strong and some who are weak.

The teams were:

  • Phoenix: Katie Wright transferred across and volunteering to lead an otherwise all male team,
    depleted of Duane Bryan and Nick Holzherr, who joined�
  • Sterling: Seeming relieved to be rid of Katie and agreeing to be led by Duane

The First Fail

Both teams fouled up their ingredients formulae.

At Sterling, Jane the food expert struggled badly with the quantities and the first batch had Nick Hewer Googling the nearest A&E department.� After manfully putting a spoonful in his mouth (leading from the front is never a pleasant task when there is genuine mortal danger), Duane was in chilli induced paroxysms.� Sterling recovered though.� Duane stripped Jane unceremoniously of her responsibility for calculating ingredient quantities and took control himself.� Jane �I know food� McEvoy continued to try to drive from the backseat, but the factory team nailed it.

In Phoenix, Katie left Ricky Martin� in charge of the manufacturing sub-team and went off to (mis-)name and brand the product (more later).� Who knows how, after producing a serviceable first batch, they managed to so completely fail with the recipe for the production batches?� Adam certainly didn�t �I don�t know. There�s too much of something � or too little� he repeated several times, looking helpless and hopeless.� One hundred bottles of ketchup: gone.

So what were these products?

Sterling, against the advice of food expert Jane, went for a pineapple and chilli chutney.� I hate chutney � sweet stuff with savoury is just wrong.� But I acknowledge that many people of good taste do like it.� They branded it Infusion, with a simple label.

Phoenix went for what I am sure was initially discussed as a premium table sauce, but morphed in the first trade sales call into a mass market product.� They gave it an Italian sounding name �Belissimo�.� It only sounds Italian when you say it out loud, because on the label, due to spelling it with one �l�, it was as Italian as Michael�s accent.� Sadly, trade customers notice this kind of thing and that, coupled with a label that would arguably infringe the Trades Descriptions Act, was the crowning achievement in their coronation of failures.

Spoiler Alert

And what were the results?

Both teams did well on sales to the public and all credit to Phoenix team leader Katie for recognising that a high mark-up on retail sales was the only way to salvage any profitability on a lame stock level depleted by manufacturing catastrophe.

Phoenix had lame results in trade sales, but unlike his team, I don�t blame Michael for walking away from the first deal because the buyer offered 4p per unit less than the bottom line team leader Katie had set.� It was the first sales call of the day and he had a reasonable expectation of selling them for more.� They did sell some for more, although by then, Tom Gearing and Azhar Siddique, who were with Michael, rebelled against him and Azhar made the sale.� Michael looked weak, if not necessarily wrong.

Let�s have a look at the numbers:

Sterling sold 607 bottles of chutney for �1,028 (rounded)

Phoenix sold 305 bottles of ketchup for �586 (rounded)
� the vast majority of which were retail sales at a high mark-up,
making up, in profitability terms, for the astonishingly high unit cost.

Katie brought Michael (responsible, she asserted for low sales) and Ricky (responsible for the manufacturing process) into the boardroom.� There, Lord Sugar made it clear that attention to the quality of the product and the details of recipe were the fundamental cause of the team�s failure.� Was Ricky to blame?� Even Karren Brady who observed the fiasco in the preparation kitchen could not tell what had gone wrong.

Lord Sugar also decried the spelling error as a basic mistake.
Then, after the usual process, her fired Michael.

His words were telling, because they indicate that task failure is not his only criterion and that instinct has a big part to play in deciding how to hazard his �250,000.� He gave credit to Katie � as do I � for her decision to push the retail price of the ketchup to the upper limits of plausibility to try to gain some margin.� She and the rest of the sub-team sold out.

But in the end what counted was the question Lord Sugar asked Michael.
It was largely rhetorical:

�Michael, do you think you�re out of your depth?�

Lord Sugar did.� On an �instinctive gut feeling� he made his decision:

�With regret, Michael, you�re fired.�

Assessment of the candidates from performance to date

I am starting to form three clear blocks of candidates:

  1. Those to watch because they could go far in this process
  2. Those to watch while we can, because I don�t expect them to last long
  3. Those to watch because we still know so little
    This is still a lamentably big block, but this is just week 3.

Two who could go far

  1. Duane Bryan.� One to watch after week 2 and did well this week.� I also find him a plausible winner in terms of his demonstrated creativity.
  2. Nick Holzherr won week 1 leading Phoenix and looked competent today.� I also put him ahead with Duane on creativity.

Three who could be gone soon

  1. Jane McEvoy was lucky to survive last week and, had Sterling lost this week, would have been culpable.� We have seen a brash at times, sulky at others, petulant style with no positive contributions to make up for them.� Maybe the camera and editing lie, but I think she is in danger next time she is taken into the boardroom.
  2. Adam Corbally came across as patronising to Katie and a big �I am� in the boardroom.� He seems to have too little to offer Lord Sugar on tonight�s performance.
  3. Stephen Brady has come across to me as all �sales mouth� and no �delivery trousers�.� He has yet to prove himself, so I should be putting him in the list below.� Call it instinct, but I can�t see him winning � although he could hang on in there for a while.

Eight who are still a mystery

  1. Gabrielle Omar had a bad first week but has evaded the cameras for much of the time since.
  2. Jade Nash
  3. Jenna Whittingham
  4. Katie Wright has had two close calls in the boardroom with Lord Sugar and should, objectively, be in the list above.� But my gut tells me there is more to see from Katie, so I am reserving judgement on her.
  5. Laura Hogg
  6. Azhar Siddique is another candidate who has had a big fail � leading the boys to a win but winning no plaudits from his team-mates for his leadership.� He did moderately well today in making a sale against the odds (over-priced and mislabeled sauce).� He avoids the list above by the tiniest slither and my own moral cowardice.� I�d put no money on him.
  7. Ricky Martin had to take the fall for this week�s big fail, but I was impressed by his honesty, right from the start, in taking responsibility.� But, he may have been responsible operationally as well as hierarchically.� One failure though is not enough to write off a candidate in The Apprentice or in the real world: it�s how they develop afterwards.
  8. Tom Gearing



4 Responses to The Apprentice 2012, Episode 3: Attention to Detail
  1. I agree Michael wasn’t responsible for the failure of the task, and you make a good point about it being his first call of the day. In the world of The Apprentice, though, I think he should have taken the initiative, made the sale anyway (or at least contacted Katie for authorisation) and demonstrate that his sub-team had done something. It’s the old market trader’s maxim: better a quick win to start the day on a high than no win at all.

    Fundamentally, given the low volume the trade team had to sell, their performance had no influence on the outcome of the task anyway – the gap to Sterling was simply insurmountable. No matter what Phoenix did, their low production volume meant Sterling only had to be vaguely competent in selling to ensure a win.

    I’m in broad agreement with you about your assessment of the candidates too, although for now I rate Duane above Nick. Adam, Stephen and Jane are no-hopers, for sure.

    I’m intrigued by Tom and Jade. We have seen comparatively little of each, but both have been quietly painted in a positive light (unlike, say, Jenna). In particular, we were shown Tom’s accurate dissection of Phoenix’s failure here – reminiscent of Tom Pellereau last year, who we saw week after week identifying his team’s errors and being completely ignore by his teammates.

    Finally, I’ve long since given up on expecting Sugar to fire the person most responsible for a task’s failure. It’s clear he decides on instinct, but I also wonder whether he has already had sight of the candidates’ business plans, and has already formed an idea on which ones are credible investments and which ones are dispensible. It would certainly help explain why Tom P was never really in danger of being fired last year, despite his habit of alwyas being on the losing team.

  2. Apologies for posting a double link. I was a bit keen with the ‘paste’ button!

  3. Tim,
    Lord Sugar did say at the start of Episode 1 that he had seen the candidates’ business plans so yes, I think he is happy to clear out obvious “dead wood” early in the process. Too many people berate this show for not being true to real life business, as if someone promised it would be: it’s a TV show first and foremost. Any chance that people like me get to draw a serious conclusion is a bonus.

    But Lord Sugar is offering to invest a lot of his own cash, so it must also work as a means for him to identify and isolate the person he considers the best opportunity/risk. Michael clearly wasn’t it.

    • I completely agree, Mike. I think it’s easy for people to forget that Sugar is making a genuine investment here. It’s what made Tom Pellereau such an obvious candidate last year despite his poor performance in the tasks. Indeed task performance, while it does assess general project management and business skills, is not really an accurate test of a candidate’s business plan. You can be a brilliant PM or team member, but if your business plan is poor – like Helen Milligan’s last year – Sugar will never invest in you.

      It also strikes me that many of the skills you need to be successful in the tasks aren’t necessarily the skills you need to be a successful entrepreneur. Good people skills are generally vital in the tasks, but many entrepreneurs are unreasonable, petulant, demanding and make unconventional decisions that fly in the face of accepted business logic – Richard Branson and Steve Jobs would fall into this category, for instance.

      Ultimately, The Apprentice is an entertainment show. And while it does teach us some basic business lessons, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the best performers on the task will win the investment under this new format. As in real life, good ideas are ultimately what matter the most.


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