Linda Plant is well known for her appearances on The Apprentice where she gruels candidates and scrutinises their business plans. Her friendship with Lord Alan Sugar goes back decades, as does her incredibly successful CV! We interviewed the interviewer to find out how she started her first business at just 15 years old, floating the stock market, raising investment, top business tips and how to tackle interviews!

Linda Plant interview by Ben Farrin

How did you first meet Lord Alan Sugar?

I first met Alan Sugar in the late 70s, early 80s when he had a company called Amstrad and I had a knitwear business called Honeysuckle. I met him in the far east circuit, he would travel to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the same as me. That’s how we first met. We became acquaintances, not socially friendly, but through the years, friendly.

What’s it like working alongside him, specifically off camera? Is the relationship between you both the same off camera as it is on camera?

Yes. Alan is very natural, so what you see on camera is just how he is. He’s quite witty, he’s got quite a dry sense of humour, and I think you can tell very easily he doesn’t suffer fools. He’s just like that. There’s really very little difference with him off camera, to on camera, which is probably why he’s so good on the show.

Yes, he’s brilliant to watch! Is it true that you started your first business Honeysuckle at the age of 15?

Yes, it is. I didn’t start Honeysuckle when I was 15 but I started on a market stall, younger than that, selling ladies fashions. Then I progressed into retail and then into wholesale and Honeysuckle evolved from having a series of market stalls – I had 15 market stools across Yorkshire. Then I opened a wholesale business in Leeds where I’m from. I had quite a lot of buying power, and at that stage I had a friend who was Chinese, and he said “why don’t you go to Hong Kong?”. I’ve got quite a creative mind and had a passion for knitwear and Honeysuckle evolved from that. So, it wasn’t just an idea “oh I think I’ll start an importing business”, it evolved as many businesses do.

Wow! You were still so young, right? Did you ever have a solid business plan, or did it just keep evolving?

I didn’t because I was so young. I still say to people today, you never know, where you start is not where you end up. It’s good to have a vision. It’s good to be driven and motivated, but no I didn’t. I didn’t have a plan, and the business really did evolve. I was so young, but I just kept being driven. Probably because I was in a situation where I didn’t have a lot to lose because I started off from very humble beginnings. So, I can’t say, unlike the applicants I interview where they come with a set business plan, “I’m starting here and I’m going to end up there”, I didn’t have that.

Linda Plant Exclusive Interview

Linda Plant Exclusive Interview | The Apprentice

And you proved that you didn’t need it! You floated the London Stock Exchange with that company, didn’t you? I’m really interested to know the process of that and the responsibilities it brings with it, and you as a founder of that business, how does it change?

It brings a lot of responsibilities. Perhaps more than I realised but at the time I floated I followed Anita Roddick who floated, so women were not at the forefront of business, and it was quite a novelty for a woman who headed a company to float on the Stock Exchange. So, the interesting part was that I started early on, then to give a lot of talks to the city and brokers who were all quite fascinated to understand where my business education came from. And I said “well, actually I was a market trader”. And as Alan started selling ariels out the back of a van, I think there’s no better training than trading on a market stall and really starting from the beginning. I think in those days women were not at the forefront and that’s why I think still today, I am able to give talks, I’m able to be inspirational to people. I’m an advocate of education, I’ve got three sons who are educated. But you can still be a success. Education comes in many forms. I was educated in street life. So, there are responsibilities obviously once you float your business on the Stock Exchange. You have to be open; you have to be open anyway in business. I didn’t have to adapt too much because my focus was always on my business. I was always driven and motivated. So, I didn’t really have to do a lot other than keep the profits going, which is what I did.

What would you say are the top 3 business principles or qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

Perseverance – you have to persevere. There are ups and downs, and kneejerk reactions or giving up is not the way forward. So, perseverance. I would say motivation – keep yourself motivated, it’s very, very important – be driven. And have goals, but make them realistic goals. When I did the interviews on The Apprentice, you get these people and they come with a business plan – and you can’t run before you can walk. So have realistic goals, you can dream to be a billionaire but make sure it’s achievable. One of the most important aspects I think of life and of business is relationships.

Obviously running a business of any level is a journey, and like you said perseverance is so important and you’re going to experience highs and lows. What advice would you give to somebody that’s experiencing the lows, in terms of keeping up that motivation which is obviously so important?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you feel you’re failing or you’re struggling, you shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. You can always find people around you unless you’re just an isolated person. Ask for help. See where you’re going wrong. Maybe get someone to mentor you. If you’re basic idea is successful but you’re stumbling a bit just get help and don’t give up. Sometimes you fail at something, but it might set you up for your next success. I’ve had several different businesses across my life and that’s why I say relationships are so important. Businesses also, a lot of them are teamwork. But don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to say I’m struggling, don’t be afraid to speak out.

In terms of The Apprentice, have you got a favourite candidate from the previous shows that you’ve watched and been involved with?

Not really. My interviews are never personal against the candidates. To get to the final five, they’ve all done pretty well. Because it’s quite a gruelling process. They have to go through a lot of different principles in business to get to the final five so I would never say I have a favourite. They’re all good in different ways. Some make it to the final, some don’t but they all tried really hard. So, no favourites.

For people applying for high positions, and preparing for interviews what are your top interview tips?

Have a good CV, and don’t make it too long! You need short CV that gets to the point and gives your good qualities. Nobody really wants to know if you swam 100 lengths when you were 12 years old, it’s boring. When you’re going for an interview look smart, try to do some research before you go into the interview and if you can possibly find out who’s interviewing you – that’s always good so you know a little bit about it. Don’t start with how much holidays you’ll get, start with the interest in the job. If your interviewer asks you a question and you don’t know the answer or you can’t do it, don’t waffle, say “I don’t know that answer, I can’t do that, but I want to learn”. Show that you’re willing. Show that you are motivated, and you really want the job. That’s the best advice, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know that”. And research, good research to know a little bit about what you’re doing so you’re not stumbling. And make sure you go for a job that you really want to do – your enthusiasm will be natural.

Brilliant, thank you. There’s a little bit of a story here. I applied for The Apprentice once. I got shortlisted and made it to the final interview of the day, to the top of the building. It was about a 10-hour process. I was quite confident, not overly confident, but I just felt within myself that I was good enough. I buckled at the very last moment, on the video section on camera. I just got completely thrown. It’s kind of a regret because inside of me I kind of had the answer, but I just froze really. And I wanted to, on the back of that, ask you – do you have any regrets in business?

Yes, I do. I think anyone who goes through life and say they don’t have any regrets in business – it’s simply not true. I do have some regrets, in business of course I do. Overall, I would say I’ve had more successes than regrets but there are things that I have regrets about.

Can you elaborate on any of them and maybe explain how you overcome them?

Well, I think this is quite a known story, but my biggest regret was when I started my fashion business, what is now Matalan was my customer, but in those days, they were JMax. It was a small out of town warehouse business. I was quite friendly with John Hargreaves who was the owner. He came to me and said, “I want to expand and I’m looking for £250,000 investment”, and at that time we were expanding our own business and we didn’t give the investment. And I had dinner with him in a couple of years and he said, “if you’d have done that quarter of a million-pound investment, it would have been worth £300M today”. I think that’s one of the major regrets. But yes, I’ve had things that I have regretted. But you have to overcome them and look at the things you’ve done that you don’t regret.

Can you throw at us some top tips for businesses and entrepreneurs looking for investment?

If you’re looking for investment have a good story. Not everything can be written down in a business plan. But the bones of it have got to be good. That’s the first thing, the bones of what your investment is in, has got to be attractive to someone. The other thing that I say to the candidates on The Apprentice is, make it realistic. Say if we invest this, this is how were going to go. Show the growth pattern. Not give me this, and we’ll be there. The bones have got to be good; it’s got to be relevant. It’s got to be attractive.

What’s your proudest achievement to date?

I’ve had lots of proud moments. I’ve sold businesses, I’ve floated businesses. But I guess being asked by Alan to go on The Apprentice. Because that was quite something for me. It made me very proud that he asked me, and I think I’m a successful interviewer and that has allowed me to share – if I had never been on The Apprentice, you’d never be interviewing me now. So that has allowed me to share my business journey. So, I guess one of the proudest achievements is actually being asked to go on The Apprentice – because Alan was specific with what he wanted. He said, “I want someone who’s going to dig deep, expose weaknesses, give good television”. I think after my first show seven years ago I had a full page in The Telegraph, which said “who is Linda Plant the new interviewer?”. So that made me very proud that I could deliver what he wanted. And it’s allowed me to diversify completely into an area where I give talks, where I can be inspirational to mothers and for women. Because even today, I’m a mother, I’m a woman in business and I’ve had a wide/long journey and I can share my experience with a lot of people. I’ve done some mentoring, so I’m very proud to have been able to go on The Apprentice.

Rightly so. What a platform as well, and a great achievement. The question that I buckled on, when I made it to the top floor of The Apprentice interviews was: “tell us something funny about yourself”. I wasn’t prepared for it – I had all the business numbers, and it just threw me off. And I’d like to ask you that same question if you wouldn’t mind?   

I was very shy. Nobody ever believes that when I say I was a very, very shy child. Obviously, I think that when people meet me, I’m different to how I am on The Apprentice. I will tell you one funny story – a colleague on The Apprentice; Claudine Collins, she’s not on it this year but we became good friends, and I invited her to my house for dinner one night and she came with her daughters. And her daughters were afraid to come to the dinner because they said, “we’re afraid to meet her”. I’ve become very good friends with those girls now. I was a very shy little kid, so someone shy – you can overcome it and what really, I think overcame my shyness was because I became successful in business, and it gave me confidence, and confidence is another thing that’s very, very important. Believe in yourself. That’s so important in business and if you’re going for an interview. That’s why I say research is important, because if you’ve done your research, you’ll be confident.

Thank you so much for sharing your inspirational journey and top business tips.

It’s a pleasure, I hope I help some students. If I’ve helped someone, that’s really good.