As Lord Sugar’s henchman on The Apprentice, Claude Littner is the toughest interviewer of them all. But there’s a softer side to the man once described as a ‘Rottweiler in human form’.
On TV, the mercilessly tough interrogator leaves candidates quaking, ripping their CVs and business plans to shreds, curtly dismissing those he feels are wasting his time.
Away from the cameras, though, Littner, who has two grown-up sons – Alex and Anthony – with his wife Thelma (they’ve been together 46 years), is very much a family man, and dotes on his three young grandchildren; Max, six, Freddie, five, and three -year-old Sienna.
“I like to be called Grandpa, but sometimes they call me Baldy and that’s not right, is it? So disrespectful!” he says wryly, happy they live close enough to his north-west London home that he gets to see them regularly.
Littner has now written his memoir, Single-Minded, recounting life growing up in the capital and the highs and lows of his business career, as chairman of Amstrad International, chief executive of Tottenham Hotspur, turning around businesses and, in later years, making his mark on The Apprentice.
He never set out to be seen as ‘Mr Nasty’, he says.
“The truth is, I’m a very decent person. I’ve always been that. When you get me into a business context, especially in businesses that are really struggling, I have to be tough.
“Maybe I’m seen as being hard and uncompromising, but it’s only because if there are thousands of people who are employed and are about to lose their livelihoods and I’m given the responsibility to try and save the company, I can’t be soft and cuddly,” he adds.
“I’m a Jekyll and Hyde; I’m a decent person but when you get into a business context where there’s trouble, or fraud, or where people are being lazy, I can’t help but lose my cool.”
He insists no one’s told him to crank up the nasty persona for television.
“It comes out naturally!” he admits with a laugh. “I’m a victim of my success because that’s what the expectation is and I don’t like to disappoint anybody.”
Yet he says he admires all the candidates on the show. “This is not a walk in the park. You’re living in a house with strangers, you have no TV or internet, no contact with your family, no privacy.
“You have cameras in your face all the time and you’ve got me and Karren [Brady] bearing down on you. The tasks may look a bit silly on television but the candidates have a limited time to do an enormous amount.
“Sometimes when I read what they’ve got to do, I think, ‘I couldn’t do that’. I’d probably make mistakes. You get to admire the fact they handle the pressure.”
He finds filming the show “exhausting”, but remains tight-lipped about whether this year’s series might be his last. He has his fingers in a lot of pies, though, including business interests for Lord Sugar, and is a visiting professor at the University of West London’s Claude Littner Business School.
His working relationship with Sugar, whom he calls Alan, goes back 25 years.
So what does he really think of him?
“I wouldn’t have stuck around if I didn’t think he was fantastic. People who don’t know him think he’s a brute of a man. The fact is, he’s incredibly commercial, very fair, very straight and I find it a pleasure to deal with him.
“He’s not a warm, cuddly man, but if you are talking about business things, it’s fantastic to sit in a board meeting and he’s incredibly clever in coming up with solutions, has common sense and a businesslike, straightforward approach.
“If you’ve got something to say, he’s keen to listen. He doesn’t like any showing off. If you haven’t got anything sensible to say, you’re best off not saying anything.”
Ironically, it was after a heated row with Lord Sugar in 1997 that Littner, then 47, took the rest of the day off and decided to visit his GP, believing he had hernia symptoms.
However, he actually had a grapefruit-sized tumour and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, and told he had six months to live. Lord Sugar told him to “just get better”.
He spent months in hospital undergoing high-dose chemotherapy.
“You start to look like an alien,” Littner writes in his book. “No hair at all, no eyebrows or eyelashes, a sunken face and a bowed back. You barely look human at all.”
At one point he thought he had died.
“I remember it distinctly. I can picture myself in the hospital room. I was hooked up to machines, the nurse was with me all night, and I woke up the following morning thinking I’d died the night before. I thought I didn’t make it, but I did.”
After months of treatment, he went into remission – but the cancer returned in 1999, which meant more chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant from his sister’s donor cells. He weighed less than nine stone by the end of it all, but he was alive.
He’s been cancer-free since March 2000 but goes back annually for checks.
“Inwardly, I’m always worried it’s going to come back and I’m going to be in trouble again, but I try not to show it. My wife is worried and my children are worried so there’s no point in me adding to the concern they obviously feel.
“I still joke to my wife that they made a mistake with the diagnosis and it was just a smudged fingerprint on the X-ray they were seeing. I don’t want to make them worry.”
“It did change me but there wasn’t a lightbulb moment of one minute I was mean Claude and the next I was sweetness and light,” he continues. “It was a realisation of your mortality and a recognition you’ve been incredibly lucky to have your life back. It gives you a sort of depth. You need to make the most of it. It made me grow up.
“I am now very sensitive to others who are facing serious illness and try to be helpful to those who are enduring similar experiences to mine.”
Away from work, he enjoys the cinema and theatre, watching Spurs and being involved with the eponymous business school.
“I want to make a difference and I think I can, partly because of my profile. Companies will be keen to see me. I can tell them about the wonderful students we have at the university.”
In the future, he could see himself helping out the Government.
“With some of the issues the Government has, they might be advised to get in touch with me and see if I can’t help them out, in areas perhaps to do with apprenticeships or young people or universities.
“I haven’t been in touch with Theresa May – I’m waiting for the call.”