Nick Hewer on Uber, Jack Whitehall, true entrepreneurship and the dream of a Labour Party coup

 
Harriet Green
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Hewer and Michael Whitehall are making a TV programme together (Source: Getty)
I’m very wobbly. I feel homeless – it’s a huge hole,” says Nick Hewer who, after nine years and 10 series as Alan Sugar’s right-hand man, has left The Apprentice. But the 71 year-old businessman isn’t talking about leaving the show; he’s describing what it feels like to have voted Labour since 1964 and now be faced with a catastrophic lurch to the left.
“Blair. We all thought we had John Kennedy. And he was JFK for a while, and then he walked us into an illegal war. Then we had no-hoper [Brown], who should’ve been taken out and just quietly put to sleep. But nobody had the bottle to do it.” What followed, says Hewer, was the “bland brigade, and somebody thought we ought to jazz things up – let’s get Jeremy in. And guess what? He got swept in.”
The trouble is, he adds, is that he really likes Corbyn – as a man. “He’s like Tony Benn. If you sat with him for half an hour, you’d go and fight for him. The problem is that the policies just are not of this time. I’ve bet somebody 2-1 that he’ll be out by Christmas. I’ll lose the money, but I don’t care.”
Hewer met Ed Miliband once. He knew “in a fraction of a second” that he wasn’t cut out to lead – “wet fish handshake, sitting there all aloof – he didn’t care what the City had to say. That was a mistake.” The day after the event, Hewer went to William Hill.
“If the Labour party wants to see power again in my lifetime, somebody is going to have to mount a coup. They’ve got to get over this inability to pull the trigger. In business, if your chief executive is driving you into a ditch, you ask him to move aside, and bring somebody in who is going to actually save the company. And this is saving the Labour Party. It’s saving the movement. That’s it.”
And Hewer isn’t keen on the potential contenders, either. “Chuka Umunna? Well why did he back off? We still don’t really know. He’s terribly charming, but is he just too slick? I can’t in my heart go to the Tories, but I’m looking for a home. Perhaps the answer is the Liberals... I really don’t know.”

ONCE IN A LIFETIME

Hewer was born into a reasonably comfortable family in Swindon. I ask him how his childhood influenced a successful life in business and he answers immediately: “debt was absolutely forbidden”. He remembers getting into a sticky situation over stamp collecting, and receiving “nasty, threatening letters” from the stamp company, aged seven.
“My parents didn’t say a word. They wanted to drum into me that you’ve got to be responsible for your own money. It was a huge lesson for me. In fact, maybe it dampened my entrepreneurial spirit.”
Unlike Sugar, Hewer isn’t known for starting things. But he’s a consummate executer and finisher. Aged 22, he joined a London PR firm. Six years later, he was on the board, and he then went on to buy out the owner. He first met Sugar when his firm was taken on to represent Amstrad, Sugar’s company, in 1983.
I don’t ask him about Sugar directly, but he’s quick to mention him. “Some people are masters of timing; he’s one of them. He always got it right, just because he has a feeling.” He recalled Sugar walking into Dancall, a Danish mobile-phone company for which Amstrad paid £6.4m in 1993, and then sold for £92m in 1997. “He just smelt the air. Sniffed it, and knew it could work. That’s an innate quality. That is entrepreneurial.”
Having left The Apprentice, Hewer is now focusing on new things. Last year, the Countdown presenter started working with Bark, an online marketplace which enables consumers after a certain service to connect with sole traders and small businesses who offer it.
“I’ve got involved because it’s about small business, and it’s about giving people choice,” he tells me, before adding: “You don’t look like you need a personal trainer, but if you did, you could go on there and find one. Or a dog walker, or someone who could make a stained glass window.”
The platform provides protection for customers and a saving grace for small firms that have a “funny looking little website, no marketing budget, and no idea how to spread the word”.
Widening access and opportunity means a lot to Hewer. A bright student, he got a place at Trinity College Dublin to study Law. “University education isn’t just about getting a job. I missed out because family circumstances prevented it. It was a sadness, really. Friends went, and so I was suddenly alone.”
He’s also extremely keen on the reputation dynamic of Bark – the fact that, like the review website that preceeded it, and now the rest of the sharing economy, trust and reputation play a big part. “It’s a pity there isn’t more trust in the world, actually. A great shame. But things like Ebay, Uber, – they’re becoming a part of life. That’s fantastic.”
On the subject of Uber, Hewer, unsurprisingly, has a view. “This is the issue Britain has, and one America wouldn’t. We say, ‘we love black cabs, cabbies are great. We don’t like minicabs; we don’t trust minicab drivers.
We must protect the cabbies’. In America, they’d say, ‘don’t be stupid! Uber is half the price!’ So why are we being protectionist of something that’s proving quite expensive for us? Is that the British sense of fair play? Modern Britain should be driving for a cheaper price. It’s madness.”
In and among time spent on Bark and several charities – on the 22nd, for instance, he’s flying out to Sierra Leone to work with Street Child – Hewer is also cooking up a new TV programme. Having made several TV appearances with comedian Jack Whitehall, Hewer met his parents.
“They’re a laugh. Michael [Jack’s dad] and I have got a proposal being looked at by various people. It hasn’t got a title or anything.” The basic premise, he explains, is “two blokes, one more adventurous than the other, observing what’s going on in various situations and reacting”.
Who’s the adventurous one, I ask. “Put it this way: Michael doesn’t like leaving London, but I can never wait to get out. He has to be persuaded, but I’ve always been a bit of a traveller.”

CV NICK HEWER

Age: 71
Born: Swindon, Wiltshire
Lives: Northamptonshire
Studied: Clongowes Wood College, Ireland
Drinking: A reasonable Claret
Eating: Anything really. I’m not a foodie, so simple is best. I’ll eat anything
Currently reading: Burmese Days, by George Orwell; Goodbye To All That, by Robert Graves; and a guide to Japan (where I’m hoping to visit)
Favourite Business Book: Don’t have one and I don’t want one either
Talents: None
Heroes: People of my age don’t have heroes. When I was younger, JFK was a hero – and Primo Levi
First ambition: I was remarkably unambitious as a child. To be in the school First XV. A better one, actually, is to be unsackable by 30 by owning a company.
Motto: “You don’t have to be a genius to succeed, you just have to work harder.”

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