Less is More

This week on The Apprentice: A bunch of headless chickens, a catfight and some dogged negotiating skills.

As an infrequent visitor to the BBC’s Apprentice site I’ve only just noticed that you can watch a condensed version of last week’s episode in fast-forward mode. This will only take up 4 1/2 minutes of your valuable time. Alternatively, for some genuine insights, you could carry on reading this blog.

What better antidote to the endless coverage of “Frozen Britain” than the white-hot business talent demonstrated by our thrusting young apprentices? Judging by last week’s volley of expletives, you could probably warm yourself for several days in the heat generated by yet another Laura Moore meltdown.

A 5.30am wake-up call found a grumpy Stella answering the phone and berating her “lazy” housemates. Viewers enjoyed the rare sight of Chris Bates having a shave — not a very close one, I fear. While steely eyed Stella was droning on about this competition being a test of “mettle”, Stuart told us what we’d long suspected, that it all boils down to who can get the most sleep.

Week 9 brought us to my favourite task, the one I like to think of as the “headless chickens” exercise. As it turns out Lord Sugar uses similar terminology to describe what happens when you give someone 10 hours to shop for 10 items that don’t include anything you can find in your average branch of Tesco. With £1,500 burning a hole in their pockets, the teams had to lay their hands on a Singer sewing machine, 50 grammes of Alba White truffles, some chicken feet and a plain single tikka (no, it’s not a curry). For the first time since Week 1 the (three) boys of Synergy would go head to head with the four girls of Apollo.

After the rocket science that was inventing new flavours of crisps, Lord Sugar’s shopping list should have been a piece of piss, shouldn’t it? After all, they weren’t being asked to conduct their negotiations in German, though I can see that this might have put Stuart at an immediate disadvantage.

How low can you go?

Team leaders Jamie and Liz immediately demonstrated their contrasting approaches. The boys zeroed in on getting the best prices for each item. “Start at 70 per cent lower than what he’s looking at” advised Jamie, as Karren Brady looked on approvingly. More intriguingly, he counselled the importance of finding the right “story” when you’re involved in tough negotiations. Apparently, the exercise of “busting someone’s balls” is made more palatable if you explain exactly how desperate you are. For Jamie it’s a clear case of Boardroom-phobia, isn’t it?

I wasn’t sensing much energy amongst the girls as Liz handed out assignments and banged on about that 6.30pm deadline. As they formulated their geographical approach — trying to establish the right areas to target — I detected lingering resentment over Stella’s high-handed behaviour last week.

After failing to be the early bird that catches the worm in Hamburg, Jamie had some serious catching up to do and he opted to go it alone on his five items. At first it looked as though the girls were going to wrap this task up without breaking a sweat. After a quick phone call, Stella established that the tikka could be obtained in Southhall, which is the Indian equivalent of Hatten Garden. Jamie, who’d opted to hit the road rather than the phone, trailed wearily round the real Hatten Garden only to be met with blank incomprehension. “What does it do?” enquired one baffled diamond merchant, who could no doubt sell you all the carats your little heart desired but, alas, had no tikkas.

Stuart and Chris fared no better in their search for the Bluebook. Joanna had already impressed Nick Hewer by getting the correct definition from some bloke on the end of the phone and she hadn’t even left the conference room yet! The trusting boys, who were already in the field, got a bum steer from a woman who told them it was an American military periodical from the 20s and 30s. Confident that they’d stolen a march on the girls, they headed off for Charing Cross Road, home of musty old volumes that no one’s ever heard of. If they’d looked more closely at their shopping list, which mentioned “London runs”, they might have figured out a lot earlier that these volumes were sets of routes for aspiring London cabbies. Wouldn’t the drivers who ferry the candidates around have been able to point them in the right direction?

In Southall, Stella and Laura were looking at a hefty £195 for the much-prized tikka and Laura immediately offered £160. Job done. The pair departed looking satisfied and Laura declared it to be an “awesome” deal. Nick Hewer’s expression said otherwise. Meanwhile, Jamie was in Wembley showing us all how it should be done. Threatening to take his custom elsewhere (Southall) if he didn’t get the £130 price tag he was looking for, he eventually settled on £135. An admiring Karren Brady was quick to identify his “key talents” as a negotiator, but I suspect she was really thinking how cute he was looking.

Check mate

Karren was less impressed, “fearful” in fact, as she trailed up and down Regent Street as Chris and Stuart went hunting for two metres of Modern Mackenzie tartan. Luckily, Synergy’s other big asset was Chris’s hitherto unsuspected gift for telling porkies. Perhaps he’s learned a thing or two from listening to other people being economical with the truth. He came up with a yarn about a Scottish wedding and a birthday gift for his nan. More important, he said he couldn’t spend more than £25. They got it for £23. Nan was going to be a happy woman. He used a similar technique with a line about his taxi driver brother, when they finally tracked down those elusive Bluebooks — Caledonian Road not Charing Cross Road.

Narrative gifts and strong negotiating tactics were, I sensed, proving more successful for the boys than being well organised. Still, Jamie “This kitchen worktop is haunting me” did fail to source three of his five items. But the task was best summed up by the fact that Stella opted to go truffle shopping in Knightsbridge, when Laura thought East London might have been a better bet. After failing to get Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay on the blower (seriously?), Stella headed for her favourite eaterie, Zafferano’s restaurant, where a clueless Laura struck a deal for 50 grammes at £200. The boys took a less ritzy route and paid £150 in an upmarket food emporium.

Despite all the twists and turns, I suspected that turning up late to the boardroom would prove to be the least of Apollo’s problems. There were some amusing preliminaries, with Lord Sugar accusing Stuart of getting his jokes from a Christmas Cracker, conveniently forgetting that his own quip to Liz — “You’re taking so much on board you sound like a container ship” — was equally feeble. Let’s face it, neither of them has a future as a stand-up comedian.

But the real shocker for the self-satisfied ladies of Apollo was that their 10 items had cost them a total of £1,094.40, while Synergy only spent £1,020.50, despite incurring £511.50 worth of fines. The tortoise had trumped the hare — well, sort of. Lord Sugar summed it up “You’re bad negotiators”, as Liz looked nonplussed and Jamie wore a Cheshire cat grin. Synergy took their Three Stooges act to Paris, where they pranced around in berets.

The heart of the matter

Some of the boardroom encounters have been a bit anaemic, but this one didn’t disappoint. Could Apollo explain why they’d handed over £69 for that bit of tartan, while the boys had paid just £23? Perhaps Liz, Laura and Stella (the three in the firing line) have set too much store by their ability to bat their eyelashes and slather on the lip gloss. Sometimes getting what you want means you have to be very pushy and risk making a prat of yourself. I think only Joanna really grasped that concept.

We’ve heard some lame attempts at arse-covering in the boardroom, so it was good to hear Liz admitting that she’d completely missed the point of the exercise, which was to buy C-H-E-A-P-L-Y. Stella, the world’s least effective truffle hunter, sensed that she might be staring down the barrel herself and mounted an impassioned defence of her stellar record.

Laura, had a different very view and launched into an attack that centred on Stella’s mistreatment of poor Stuart in Week 7. Yes, she’s been carrying a torch for the lumpen-faced man from the Isle of Man. “But you weren’t stuck in a room with him all day” retorted Stella, causing a wry smile to flicker across Lord Sugar’s face. Liz put the boot in, accusing Stella of giving off a “negative, cold persona” that didn’t get the best out of people (ie Stuart). I thought the fallout from this task would be all about overpriced truffles, but Stella was well and truly sandbagged by the Baggs apologists.

Stella, of course, blamed Liz for the failure of the task. Laura blamed the “corporate” Stella. It was almost too close to call, but Laura’s dire record of no sales at all in the Week 2 task counted against her when compared with the records of the other two. She was fired. Stuart wasn’t on hand to say “Hasta la vista”, but Liz wore a wistful expression as she confirmed that Laura would be missed.

So Laura is out, but the big news is that Stella has been making enemies as she’s been racking up wins over the past two months. Back at the house, banker Chris gloated about how this loss would “cut her down to size”. Does anyone find it ironic that a banker should accuse someone else of smugness?

The stage is now set for Liz vs Stella: a fight to the death. Still smarting, Liz told the shocked survivors that Stella had had the temerity to call her a “bad manager”, as though this was somehow not playing by the rules. Armour-plated Stella deflected the criticism, but she knows that minor skirmishes don’t win you the war.

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