Countdown’s Nick Hewer: ‘Amstrad should have been bigger than Apple’

6 Sep 2016

Nick Hewer: ‘Good entrepreneurs are born and are characterised by focus’. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

In 1989, UK computing icon Amstrad was poised for world domination and, if not for a product recall, it could be as big as Apple today, according to Nick Hewer, Countdown presenter and formerly Alan Sugar’s right-hand man on TV show The Apprentice.

In a salutary tale that is eerily reminiscent of the Samsung Note 7 product recall, Hewer said that a product recall caused by faulty disk drives derailed Amstrad’s hopes for world domination in the 1980s.

Hewer worked with Amstrad as its PR man during its heady growth, alongside Sugar, and had an eagle eye view of the company’s stellar rise and eventual decline.

He was in Dublin this week as part of a secret shopping expedition to discover how the local pharmacy business in Ireland can diversify to stay relevant in the 21st century and to boost pharmacists’ entrepreneurial skills with the launch of a new €5,000 bursary.

‘We had a turnover of £1bn and profits of £116m. We had distributors in North America and the Far East. We were poised’

Sugar started Amstrad when he was 21 and, during the 1970s, it was a big name in hi-fi systems.

Hewer joined Amstrad in 1983 just as Amstrad moved into computers with the CPC 464, to capture market share away from Sinclair and Commodore.

This was followed up by the Amstrad PCW word processor and printer which, in Hewer’s words, “completely killed off the typewriter market in the UK”.

But the big evolution for Amstrad was the launch of its own PC. “The PC revolution was beginning and all the clones had come along, and our main rivals were Nixdorf and others, but they all cost over £2,000. Then Amstrad came along and launched the PC1512 MS-DOS computer, which cost £399, and that was the magic number.”

More PC models followed and, within three years, Amstrad had captured 36pc of the European PC market, had gobbled up rival Sinclair, and had launched the first of its affordable portable computers – a year before the Macintosh Portable came along.

Amstrad was poised to take on the lucrative corporate market with its new PC2000 series before it all came asunder.

“I was called to a meeting when it was revealed the PC2000 was crashing and nobody knew why. We had to decide to either recall them or bluff it out. The honest decision was to recall them and then everybody else in the market jumped on our heads and kicked us around and it really killed off Amstrad’s ambitions to be a big player in the grown-up PC market. We had a turnover of £1bn and profits of £116m. We had distributors in North America and the Far East. We were poised.”

‘God, there are so many courses out there on entrepreneurship aren’t there? The bitter truth is that the good entrepreneurs are all born that way’

The problem with the PC2000 series was discovered to be faulty hard disks provided by both Seagate and Western Digital. Despite successfully suing Seagate, the ensuing bad press sunk Amstrad’s ambitions and Amstrad lost its footing in the PC market.

The rest is history, but Hewer believes that had Amstrad not lost its footing in PCs, it would still be competing today and would possibly even be bigger than Apple, even in phones.

“Alan Sugar was a great marketer and a great innovator. For example, in 1993, we launched the PenPad, the world’s first portable device that recognised handwriting, at the Science Museum in London, only weeks before the Apple Newton. But it didn’t sell because it was ahead of its time, probably four or five years ahead of its time.”

Sugar then began to concentrate less on computers and instead focused on satellite technology and Amstrad was instrumental in the success of Sky. In 2007, BSkyB announced a takeover of Amstrad for £127m.

“Sugar was a great mass market technology marketing and manufacturing guy. In particular, he was groundbreaking on pricing and giving the market what it wanted.”

So what was it like operating in the trenches with Sugar during Amstrad’s heady growth days?

“I have to say I like the sound of gunpowder and the smell of cordite. He was such an explosive character because if he wasn’t suing somebody he was about to, or about to move into some new market or do something extraordinary. Amstrad was such an exciting, electrifying place. Sugar created a tremendous team of people and it was a joy to work there. But it was impossible to get a pay rise. It was still fun, though.”

In the 1990s, Sugar became chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, a period Hewer remembers as just one long court case involving battles with everyone from Robert Maxwell to Terry Venables.

“He is a very charismatic character and capable of doing anything, really.”

Entrepreneurship is a numbers game and not a play on words

Hewer was born in the UK. His maternal grandfather, despite being Roman Catholic, was the High Sheriff of Belfast and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ulster during the tumultuous 1920s before heading south to Dublin. He got into business after getting financial support from Seán Lemass and created a thriving refrigerator manufacturing business in Dublin during the 1940s.

His mother married an Englishman and moved to the UK but she stipulated that Hewer and his three brothers be educated at Clongowes Wood in Kildare.

‘Had I been a child in 1982 I would have watched it [Countdown] bouncing on my mother’s knee as a way of learning the alphabet, that’s for sure’

Despite securing a place at Trinity College Dublin to study law, his parents couldn’t afford the fees and he instead headed to London in the 1960s and became a PR man. In 1983, Sugar and Amstrad came knocking and Hewer became part of the Amstrad management group.

After Amstrad, Hewer worked on various causes, including changing the UK pension scheme to make it automatic for workers.

But it was in 2004 that Sugar once again knocked on Hewer’s door and he began appearing as Sugar’s adviser on the UK version of The Apprentice, which he continued to do until 2014.

The Apprentice sparked an unexpected broadcasting career for Hewer, where he did numerous shows, including a BBC Two show called The Farm Fixer where he assisted farmers in Northern Ireland in diversifying, as well as BBC One documentaries on social subjects like immigration and TV shows like Have I Got News For You and Celebrity Antiques Road Trip.

His latest role is as presenter of the Channel 4 game show Countdown, one of longest-running game shows in the world.

While aware of Countdown’s legacy going back to original presenters like Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman, Hewer said he missed out on much of the game show’s phenomenal rise because he was so busy working.

“Had I been a child in 1982 I would have watched it bouncing on my mother’s knee as a way of learning the alphabet, that’s for sure.”

The show, which involves word and number puzzles, is a much-loved institution. But does Hewer think that because of technology people are getting better at words and numbers?

“I heard a frightening thing the other day and that was that people in the future won’t need to learn handwriting because everything today is keyboard-based. That is heresy! That is dystopia times 10. I think handwriting is something that mirrors to some extent one’s character.

“I think that my generation read voraciously and I’m not sure that young people read as much nowadays because they are always on their screens. At breakfast today I saw kids walking around on their screens and they found their seats without taking their eyes off the screen.

“While smartphones are wonderful they are everywhere. I think that this is damaging for conversation, for example. I also think because everyone is used to looking things up on the internet they are not using their memory or know how to get around without a sat nav.

“Of course, these technologies are sources of joy and wonder, but I still have a paper diary, which shocks most people.”

While TV has given Hewer a new career, he didn’t see it in his future. “There are still a lot of times where I absolutely accept that I am rubbish, but there you go, you have to accept these problems.

“Did I have trepidation about taking on Countdown? Absolutely. I am still terrified. I am not an egotist so in the middle of things I do be thinking ‘oh god I am awful, I should really just pack it in’. Then the other half of me says that I am just about getting away with it. That’s reality.”

Skilling up for the 21st century

Hewer was in Dublin to announce the Actavis Academy Training and Mentoring Bursary, which provides €5,000 worth of training and mentoring to traditional pharmacy businesses.

On arrival in Dublin, Hewer went on a secret shopping expedition to two traditional Dublin pharmacies to assess how they will compete in an era where chains like Boots are expanding to more and more towns.

‘A huge problem is that many pharmacists are trained in medicine but not how to run a business’

He was surprised by what he saw: some pharmacies operate no differently than they in the 1960s, while others are turning into pound shops with a pharmacy bolted on just to eek out a profit centre.

“Most of these 1,800 independent pharmacies are family businesses and this business has been hit by falling medicine prices and lower margins. It is very hard for any of them to claw back profitability.

“A huge problem is that many pharmacists are trained in medicine but not how to run a business. The whole technology element is interesting. For example, my local Boots texts me to tell me that my prescription is ready and I don’t have to trail off to the doctor every few weeks. I just pick it up and inevitably because the pharmacy is at the back of the store I end up buying stuff I wasn’t looking for.”

He recommends an article in the Pharmacy Journal on the future of the pharmacy as an insight into where the business is going.

Are entrepreneurs born or made?

Having worked with entrepreneurs all his working life, I ask Hewer if we are in a golden era for entrepreneurship?

“God, there are so many courses out there on entrepreneurship, aren’t there? The bitter truth is that the good entrepreneurs are all born that way.


‘What all the good entrepreneurs have is focus. Absolute, dedicated focus and to hell with everything and everybody else’

“They are the guys and girls who had been starting businesses at school when the teacher wasn’t looking. You can learn it, of course, but the real people have the gut instinct.

“Look at Sugar, he started a business when he was 12. Richard Branson was up to mischief when he was a schoolboy.

“But what all the good entrepreneurs have is focus. Absolute, dedicated focus and to hell with everything and everybody else.

“I used to spend entire flights with Alan Sugar and he wouldn’t bother with small talk because his mind was on some problem or opportunity. He was focused on what he was doing and that was all that mattered. But if he didn’t know something he needed to, he would find it out in half an hour because he had a laser-like focus on information.

“If it wasn’t relevant to him he wouldn’t have a point of view on the EU or monetary policy. But if you asked him about spot prices for DRAM on the Rotterdam market last Thursday, he would know to 13 decimal points.

“The successful entrepreneurs are the ones with a razor-like focus on what they want to achieve.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years