Interview with Bill Cullen

Bill Cullen is Ireland’s personified rags-to-riches tycoon story. Making his start by selling apples close to where the IFSC now stands, Colin Sweetman writes to find out more about the fourth season of ‘The Apprentice’, his personal life, and his opinion about the presidential race.

Originally published in The Dubliner Magazine in 2011.

Bill, how are you?

I am fantastic. I got my three-quarter of an hour workout this morning so I’m ready to go.

What’s your workout?

I do stretching, small weights, skipping and boxing and some pilates. You don’t need anything more than a small room to work-out and go to town! No point going to a gym, wasting a couple of hours there and all the rest of that crap.

Have you spotted this year’s winner of the Apprentice yet?

Well, what we do initially is get the CVs of the first group. We don’t meet them until the very first task. So we look at the CVs and put them in order into what we think – say from ‘one’ to ‘sixteen’ – but we have a little chart. This is where we have the ten attributes/talents that we want them to have, and then we have the names with us and after the first task, we give them points out of ten for each of the ten attributes. After that’s done, we can say “alright, there’s the top four and there’s the bottom four”. Over the next few weeks, they keep changing. The fellow at the top might mess up and go down and vice-versa. But usually, the winner was one of the top four.

Has you ever spotted a winner in the first week?

Yes but they often pop up and down throughout the show, and that’s the way we do it. On top of that, you have to put instinct on your decisions. Then I’ll get Jackie and Brian to see why they’re great, then the production team and so on. You have to make the decision then whether to hire or fire them and that’s my decision completely.

Have you ever had a ‘one that got away’?

I never let anyone go that I really really wanted. But I let people go who would have been a number two or three. But over the years, we have offered a position to the other person we would have liked to have on the team and they all said ‘no’ – and that’s what happens! They get a taste of television – take Breffni for example. He works in hospitality, for nightclubs et cetera and that’s what he wants to do. Last year, Will was very good and went on to stand for TD where Brian Lenihan used to be, running for office for An Teachta Dáila. It goes to show that it opens up new worlds for them.

I think Donald Trump is an amazing character. The first time I saw the Apprentice I thought it was a great idea and that he did very well, and that he’s one of the biggest achievers in America.

Can you tell if someone has an interest purely in TV or the job itself?

I’d say most people just want the job itself, because it’s a 100K job, they won’t want something for 30 or 40 then. We offered a couple of jobs as salespeople, but that’s how you have to earn it.

How have past winners worked out for you?

Brenda Shanahan stayed with us for two years, but she went on to work as a Marketing Director for a company based in London and Cork so that suited her. Then I had Steve Rayner and he’s still with us. He’s the guy who admitted he was an alcohol to Gavin Duffy, but I can’t say enough about that guy. He took to the job like a duck to water, even though he had no previous experience of car sales. He picked it up rapidly because he studied continuously. He’s such a nice fella, he doesn’t do anything but use that very nice gentle English accent and one-on-one he’s a lovely man. Michelle is also doing very well. She has a degree from DIT in Digital Marketing and is getting us into the social media world.

So none of them were disappointing?

No disappointment at this stage. It’s worked for everybody. Even all the contestants that don’t get through at least least learn something from it even if it was only one task.

What do you think of your UK and US counterparts, Alan Sugar and Donald Trump?

I think Donald Trump is an amazing character. The first time I saw the Apprentice I thought it was a great idea and that he did very well, and that he’s one of the biggest achievers in America. So yes I think he’s terrific.
With Alan Sugar, people don’t believe this but me and Alan Sugar were actually pals back in 1974. What happened was, we had the petrol strike again from the Israeli-Egyptian war, no petrol in Ireland again. So what they had to do was send all the ships around the Horn of Africa because the Suez Canal was blocked. Petrol was severely rationed here, you could only get about two gallons per week. So i was converting cars to run on propane gas. I was buying some equipment in Leeds and a car pulled up outside and started kicking it. I went and said “Listen, you’re going to have a heart-attack, the car’s not going to fell anything”, and he said “I didn’t sell even one of these bloody things on the road all week!” It was car radios he was selling out of the back of a station wagon. He was selling them for fifty quid, but couldn’t even get rid of them for a tenner. So I made a deal with him, “I’ll give you four hundred quid for the fifty of them” and left it at that. “You robbing bastard!” he replied so just had to tell him, here’s the four hundred quid you either want it or you don’t. I think the minute he saw the notes he said ‘oh I’ll have that’ and took it and said ‘you get no receipts for back pocket money!”

Anyway, he gave me a signature on a bit of paper that said AMSTRAD. I asked what it meant and he said “That’s me, Alan Michael Sugar Trading Company”. So that’s how I met him. He went on from there, and I bought the first Amstrad in Ireland back in the 80s. So we kept up a relationship over the years and it was probably through him that recommended I do the Apprentice here in Ireland.

What do you think of Alan on the job?

He’s comes across as a bit grumpy but in person he’s a really decent bloke, like anyone else really – same as meself. But you have to be tough on these guys, because they only get one chance at it. All in all, I’m trying to teach them, to provoke them, to get them to push themselves, to see themselves and what they’re doing wrong. For instance, this girl on Monday night spent an hour and three-quarters of team time to decide what kind of sandwiches they were going to make! Just get the most popular sandwich -stuffed chicken, great! And a dozen others for people who like something different. Had they done that they’d have sold everything. And they just ignore this.

Who would you vote for Áras an Uachtaráin?

Well, in today’s papers they have the top three lookers: Michael D Higgins, Martin McGuinness, and Séan Gallagher. So there’s still a few weeks to go and I’ll wait until then to see who I’ll pick.
It looks like it’s going to be one of the first two though. Let’s fae it though, a lot of them have their baggage like Martin McGuinness – however I think he’s a great negotiator, but people might not want to talk to that guy. With Michael D Higgins we have political experience, but do we want political experience? No. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Would you ever run for President?

Me? Oh, no – that’s not my…that’s definitely not where I’d like to be. I mean listen, I’ve been up since 4 in the morning. I’ve done all my emails, all my phone calls, texts and now I have to go out to my real work in the garages and make money. If I was up in the Áras I’d go nuts – because you’ve no power! Going around the country and talking to people is great if you want to do that. I think Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have done a great job but think we need a guy this time around. There are three women going for it this time which I think is a good thing. I spent ten years doing seminars all around the country and I’ve retired from that. So I definitely think I have too many things at the moment to consider that – like being the first Irishman in space.

Who do you think are the chief architects of the financial mess?

Ah look, there’s no point in blaming anybody. We know that the government didn’t employ the right people to control the banks. We know it was crazy. There’s no point in looking back and having a tribunal and spending more money. Don’t look at the problems, look for solutions. Go forward. Things will get better for us. It will take a few years but we’re running along the bottom.

If you were starting your career now, what are would you get into?

Well, I have the expertise to sell cars so I’d probably look into that. But if I was to start again, I would be looking into Green Energy, into the Environment, Social media. All that stuff, lots of opportunities.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Again, never look back! Don’t have any regrets. So right, I didn’t do some things I shouldn’t have done and some I should have. If I can’t get any reparations for that, then just move on.

What was the most difficult business decision you’ve ever had to make?

There’s never really any bad decisions. Not making a decision is the worst thing of all, and not making a decision is a decision in itself. So the biggest thing is , NO procrastination. Just get out there and do something. Even if it turns out to be the wrong thing, you can go back again and at least you’ve learned something by it.

What do you think of the IFSC? Do you ever go back to Summerhill?

Yes I love it. That whole area was my stamping ground. I was born and raised in Sean McDermott Street. I used to go down to the docks all the time. All that area used to be railway yards. I know it like the back of my hand. I think its great – all the steam of the corporation tax is the right thing.

Does working so close with Jackie ever cause friction in your relationship?

Of course it does. We have a great laugh. Jackie is fantastic though. She has a tremendous brain. She is a great marketeer, very definitive, doesn’t let anything hang. There’s nothing about here that isn’t on the table.

Will you and Jackie ever marry?

Yes of course we will one of these days.

When do you plan on retiring?

I’ll probably retire around 104.

How will you spend your days?

Oh well when it comes to that stage Jackie’ll probably be wheeling me around. No, but one of the things we’ve always said is that we’ll keep fit to the very end. We’ll excercise everyday, go for walks and everything. The secrets of longevity are very simple. DON’T SMOKE. Did you get that one?

Loud and clear.

Alright. Well, you don’t smoke, you don’t get fat, and you don’t retire. Now, I’m 6”1 and there’s not a pick on me, but the Doctor says “Oh you’re two stone overweight!” Which isn’t true. I took on Ray D’Arcy and beat him at push-ups [laughs]. So I’m as fit and stretchable as any twenty year old out there.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Respect everybody, give everybody respect. Don’t judge them, but respect them at all times no matter what happens.

Colin Sweetman, ACCA

Colin Sweetman, ACCA

Colin is a chartered certified accountant and founding director of First Accounts and FutureME, as well as a contributor on The Accounting Channel (Breakeven By Breakfast) and "Finance & The Common Good".