Amstrad was one of Britain’s brightest retail electronics businesses in the 1980s. During a time when most British electronic companies suffered setbacks, Amstrad’s annual profits grew from £1.4 to £160 million.
Founder Alan Sugar was rated among the country’s top entrepreneurs. What made Amstrad great and what makes Alan Sugar tick?
Sadly, these questions are not answered by David Thomas's book The Amstrad Story.
Thomas’s omissions do not make the book worthless. It has the three i’s required of any lightweight business reader it is:
- inspiring and
Flawed Amstrad textbook
Despite its inspirational qualities, the book is flawed as a textbook for budding Sugars.
It offers no insight into Amstrad’s recipe for success. It offers no insight period. The book chronicles Sugar’s business activities with anecdotes and comments from Sugar and his business partners.
Part of the problem is Sugar’s reluctance to open himself up to public scrutiny. The man has a well-known dislike for journalists and likes to keep his personal life to himself.
As a journalist on the Financial Times, Thomas somehow managed to bypass this obstacle and gain access to some of Sugar’s thoughts and a great deal of the more favourable aspects of Amstrad’s growth period.
Yet, for the most part the book reads like public relations puffery. Alan Sugar vetted it before publication. Only Thomas’s insistence on recording Sugar’s bad language verbatim saves it from reading like Pollyanna.
At no point did Thomas talk to any of Sugar’s rivals — he offers no critical analysis of Sugar or Amstrad.
Sugar interesting, no saint
As a journalist working in this area through most of this period in the UK, I knew of many who had much to say about Alan Sugar that was far from complementary.
Criticism, constructive or otherwise, does not diminish Sugar’s achievement. It helps us understand it.
In particular, the book does not tell us enough about how Sugar started.
It seems he left a warehouse one day with a van full of electronic goods and returned that night having sold the lot — I’d love to know how.
Shady? Who knows?
By not telling us the whole story, Thomas leaves readers with the impression there might be something shady in Sugar’s early business dealings. That isn’t fair on the readers and it isn’t fair on Sugar.
For my money the most galling feature of this book is its Cambridge-educated author’s habit of painting Sugar as a Del-Boy or Arthur Daley-type character. Why Sugar’s design notes are reproduced along with spelling errors is beyond me.
The same goes for verbatim quotes complete with bad grammar or foul language. It is as if the author admires Sugar’s gumption and business brain but has to show him up as being an ignorant lout at heart.
This Del-Boy theme repeats elsewhere and it stinks of the worst kind of British class prejudice. It is a reminder of why British industry is in decline. While other nations venerate people who create new wealth the British prefer to venerate those whose ancestors made it.
Perhaps in this roundabout way the author unwittingly pulls back the curtain to show what drives Sugar: a wish to succeed and prove himself the equal or better of those born to a higher position.
If making money is a way of measuring these things, Sugar proved himself.
Despite these criticisms the book has value. The stories of how Sugar planned his computers and how he eventually acquired Sir Clive Sinclair’s business are both worth reading. Amstrad was the last major UK computer maker to capture consumer markets.
Sugar’s ability to cut through distractions and get straight to the point — usually money, is spellbinding. And those nuggets of Sugar’s managerial wisdom that peek out from underneath are pure gold.