Interview: The Apprentice’s ‘Rottweiler’, Claude Littner

CLAUDE Littner has been grilling Apprentice contestants for a decade, but how does he fare when the tables are turned? Keeley Bolger calls him into the boardroom

Claude Littner, right, with Karren Brady and Lord Sugar. Picture: PA/BBC

Claude Littner might not be a household name just yet, but this year’s Apprentice contestants will no doubt still be squirming at the memory of their time spent in his presence, when the series was shot earlier this year.

For 10 years, the business executive - who’s routinely described as ‘a Rottweiler’ - has caused even the most cocksure candidate to quake in their boots during the interview stage of the popular BBC One show.

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The 66-year-old’s called out “arrogant fools” for talking “complete nonsense”, and daring to offer up “bloody disgraces” of business plans.

Now, following Nick Hewer’s departure, he’s been promoted to Lord Sugar’s aide - and judging by early episodes, he shows no signs of softening in his new role.

Reminded of his harsh put-downs - including Solomon Akhtar’s cringe-inducing shredding in the last series - Littner is nothing but a man of his word.

Asked if he regrets being so blunt: “Why would I?” he responds with a shrug. “Solomon was a disgrace. He came to the interview with pictures of sailboats. That was unacceptable.

“The previous year, another person was also badly prepared and their business plan was not what it should be.

“If it’s a 50/50 partnership with Alan Sugar, you don’t come along saying, ‘I can offer you 16% of a business I don’t own. They’re entitled to be brutalised if they come to the interview stage without the right kind of credentials.”

Softer-spoken than Sugar, and certainly more personable away from the show, he’s nevertheless brusque, and gives the impression of being on high alert for any foolish slips.

Naturally, we won’t catch him dishing out knowing winks to camera or hoping to craft a catchphrase, but he’s not without a sense of humour.

“On the occasions I did do an interview on camera, Karren [Brady] would go behind and start making faces and things like that to put me off.

“She’s a good sport,” he says of Sugar’s fellow aide and advisor. “She helped me a lot.”

As fans of the show will know, each week, Littner and Brady observe a different group as the hopefuls - who are competing to become Lord Sugar’s new business partner and win a £250k investment - go about their task, and then essentially rat them out to Sugar whenever any wrongdoing is committed.

The groups are mixed up each week, so Littner didn’t “get close to anybody”.

“I never spoke to any of them in the whole period,” explains the married father-of-two, who lives in London.

“It’s not my job to talk to them. If they said hello to me, I ignored them. I’m not trying to be their friend, I’m just trying to do the job I’m entitled to do, which is to observe them and report back. That was my job and I hope that’s all I did.”

Littner has first-hand experience of being ignored at work. Back in 1990, his first interview with Sugar for a chair position on a number of Lord Sugar’s companies, including Amstrad International, resulted in the tough-talking businessman walking out on him, something which Sugar has since refuted. So what’s the truth?

“Far be it for me to dissuade Alan’s memory, which is pretty good, but I think my recollection is more accurate, only because it was a moment in time for me and for him, it probably wasn’t that important,” says Littner, who’s known for his work in corporate turnarounds and is a visiting professor at the University of West London Business School (which was actually named after him - The Claude Littner Business School - last year, in recognition of his contributions).

“He was testing me. I’ve seen him do that on many occasions, where you think he’s not paying attention but actually he’s paying great attention.

“It’s quite disarming if someone’s looking outside and not giving you eye contact but actually he’s listening to everything, he’s taking very much into account what you’re saying.”

Although he credits Sugar as being “outstanding” and somebody he “admires”, he admits he was perplexed by the approach.

“I thought I was wasting my time,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why did he invite me in if he had no interest in me whatsoever?’ But I didn’t know the man, now I do.”

Any chance to get to know a - dare it be said - softer side to Littner through the course of the series, is unlikely.

“I don’t want to be horrible, but I know who I am and I know what I am,” he states.

“I know my strengths. I know my weaknesses. I know that I’m a perfectly decent human being and I’m very happy with my values.

“If the public at large take a different view of me or choose to just see one side of my character, that’s their choice. I’m not out to prove myself to them one way or another. I’m not that bothered.”

He’s not looking for a career in television - “I’m very happy doing what I am doing” - but he wouldn’t mind being granted his peerage, like Lord Sugar and Baroness Brady.

“If the government asked me to do something, I’d be delighted and I’m damn sure I could be very helpful,” he says.

“If something comes my way, I’d certainly look at it as I look at everything else in life.”

Well, Lord Littner does have a nice ring to it, after all...

• The first two episodes of The Apprentice air on Wednesday and Thursday, October 14 and 15 and then continues on Wednesday nights