Book review: Single Minded - My Life In Business, by Claude Littner

Claude Littner PIC: PA Photo/BBC/Jim Marks
Claude Littner PIC: PA Photo/BBC/Jim Marks
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He came to prominence as a take-no-prisoners interviewer on The Apprentice, striking fear into the hearts of candidates, but in recent years Claude Littner has shown a calmer and less obtrusive side after being promoted to series regular, if by and large remaining an enigmatic presence. It is therefore intriguing to discover the man behind the inscrutable expression on the cover of his autobiography, the contents of which highlight his relentless tenacity, and take a pleasingly frank look at the “hitches and numerous mistakes” of his career, as well as the many successes. (At one point he even suggests that readers “would be right to come away thinking that if I had been a candidate on The Apprentice, I would have been fired at the very first opportunity”.)

His family background is almost worthy of a book in itself, with Littner’s Austrian-Jewish father arriving in England aged 14 speaking no English, being interned in wartime Paris, escaping and then living in Cuba for a few years after passing himself off as a Cuban national.

He later moved to New York, where Claude was born, before the family relocated to the UK.

Such a determined and resourceful attitude seems a likely influence on Littner junior, whose troubled school days, during which he was constantly and pre-emptively relegated to the bottom of the class, also seem to have prompted him to succeed.

Once he entered the business world he began to flourish, quickly climbing the ranks at Unilever before starting his own business and moving into a high-stakes, high-rewards phase as turnaround expert at firms such as oil services specialist Asco and five-a-side firm Powerleague. He also worked in France for a time, where he had to learn the French for “you’re fired”.

He clearly relishes coming in to a struggling company and making necessary sweeping cuts, even cancelling the milk order during his time at Tottenham Hotspur, after meeting Lord Sugar in a somewhat unconventional job interview that would surely have been TV gold.

It transpires that Sugar also had an unintentionally pivotal role in Littner being diagnosed 20 years ago with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. While the author is evidently a private man, he admits to getting understandably emotional when looking back at his experience of the disease, which initially saw him given six months to live and forced him to temporarily surrender something he held dear – control.

But he also stresses the new perspective it gave him, and all in all, Littner proves engaging, straight-talking and motivational company. Some of the detail of his business dealings may delve deeper into technicality than the average reader will be prepared for, but his story of persistent determination to triumph over serious adversity both in business and beyond has far wider appeal.

*Single Minded: My Life In Business, by Claude Littner, Piatkus, £9.99