Life with Sugar is sweeter than the law for Mountford

Today Margaret Mountford is a household name. But the former Herbert Smith partner, who shot to fame after starring in the hit BBC2 TV show The Apprentice with Amstrad tycoon Sir Alan Sugar, says she “absolutely hates” being recognised all the time.

Mountford is currently a non-executive director at Amstrad and is one of Sir Alan’s aides alongside TV sidekick Nick Hewer. On the show the duo observed the contestants during their gruelling challenges to ensure fair play and reported their findings to Sir Alan before the weekly boardroom showdowns, which had viewers across the country hooked.

So is Sir Alan’s bullish stance in the boardroom just for the cameras? “Alan is pretty much like he appears on TV. He has quite a short fuse and isn’t terribly patient. But he wouldn’t be as harsh with an employee,” says Mountford. “Also, the fatherly side of his character gets cut out.”

Mountford cannot be any more different in real life to the steely, silver-haired school headmistress who has been on our screens for the past 12 weeks. During her interview with The Lawyer she is surprisingly cheerful and very chatty. “I don’t think I’m scary at all. You can ask some of my former trainees at Herbert Smith,” she protests.

Indeed, Herbert Smith finance partner Dina Albagli, who was one of Mountford’s trainees, says her former superviser/colleague is the one of the funniest and feistiest women she has had the pleasure to work with. “She was an immense character at the firm and was very popular. She was also a great teacher,” adds Albagli.

Mountford’s relationship with Sir Alan dates back to the 1980s, when Amstrad floated on the London Stock Exchange and she was a senior associate at Herbert Smith. The Amstrad IPO was the first of many deals Mountford handled for Sugar. She also advised the no-nonsense self-made millionaire on his dispute with Tottenham Hotspur FC football manager Terry Venables.

Mountford says Sir Alan, who maintains a relationship with Herbert Smith, was and still is a very loyal client. But Sir Alan is tough on fees. “He’ll always hold you to an estimate,” says Mountford.

So what is Mountford’s relationship with Sir Alan like now? “We get on very well. I respect his views in the areas he’s competent in and he respects my views in the areas I’m competent in,” says Mountford. “There’s never a dull moment working with Alan. He never loses his enthusiasm.”

Mountford talks very fondly of Herbert Smith – the only other place she has ever worked.

And although she misses the people, she has no regrets about leaving the law behind. “I got fed up with a number of things. The buzz was less but the hours were no less,” says Mountford. “I was an old-fashioned lawyer – you got work because you were good. Now it’s all about marketing bullshit, beauty parades and haggling over fees.”

Indeed, Mountford admits that she would be a hopeless salesperson and refers to the time during the series when Sir Alan said she “couldn’t sell a box of matches”. But Mountford does not seem bothered by the put-down, arguing that she would never in a million years contemplate being a contestant on the show. “Sales doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t mind negotiating for other people, but I hate bargaining for myself,” she says.

But during his hunt for an apprentice, Sir Alan was looking for more than just a salesperson. Winner Michelle Dewberry, the 26-year-old former checkout girl from Hull, was not as good a salesperson as bolshy runner-up Ruth Badger, but is arguably more well-rounded. Mountford says: “Either of them could’ve won. But I think Ruth can sometimes rub people up the wrong way. Alan saw more of an apprentice in Michelle – perhaps because he could mould her more.”

Michelle’s prize is a £100,000-a-year job in which she has been tasked with the launch of Xenon Green, which involves the disposal of companies’ unwanted computers. “I think if she gets her teeth stuck into business opportunities she can do very well,” says Mountford.

Mountford is coy about telling The Lawyer who her favourite contestant was. However, she says former Millwall FC footballer Ansell Henry is a “really good guy”. She adds: “From the outset it was clear that Ruth, Ansell and headhunter Paul Tulip were strong contestants. Michelle came to the fore much later in the series.”

Mountford is not a big fan of cocky eastender Syed Ahmed, the contestant who infamously ordered 100 chickens to top 100 pizzas. “[Syed] did some stupid things on the show,” says Mountford.

With her brush with stardom behind her, Mountford can now concentrate on her PhD in papyrology (the study of ancient scripts), her various non-executive directorships and her work with heart disease charity Corda.