Do you take Sugar with that?

The UK version of The Apprentice gave the impression that Amstrad (run by Sir Alan Sugar) was a large successful company.  It was once, but not any more.  Now Sugar has sold the company to BSkyB for £125m (of which he will personally get £34.5m).  Not bad, but at one time the company was supposed to be worth £1.2bn.

For BSkyB the deal will bring one of its main set-top box suppliers in-house and should speed up the development of new products as it seeks to stay ahead in the increasingly competitive pay-TV market.

Brentwood-based Amstrad supplies a third of Sky's set-top boxes and the broadcaster accounts for the lion's share of revenues at Sir Alan's company.

Until now, Sky's developers had come up with product specifications in-house then gone to potential suppliers asking them to come up with detailed designs. Making Amstrad a sub-division, to be run by Sir Alan, cuts out much of the costs for Sky and speeds up the process.

Sky chief James Murdoch said the deal built on a "long and positive relationship" with Amstrad. "The acquisition accelerates supply chain improvement and will help us to drive innovation and efficiency for the benefit of our customers."

Amstrad will keep its Essex offices and a smaller set-top box contract with Sky Italia, a broadcaster wholly owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

The idea of Sugar as an employee (with the much younger James Murdoch as his boss) seems totally at odds with his image as a successful businessman.  However, to be fair, he also owns 73% of Viglen and has his own property company:

A lot of Sir Alan's wealth - which is estimated at £830m, placing him as the 84th richest man in the UK - is tied up in property, and is controlled by the Amsprop investment company run by his son Daniel.

He also owns the aviation firm Amsair, which charters planes for businesses and private travellers.

The winner of the most recent series of The Apprentice went to work on a golf club project owned by Amsprop, rather than for Amstrad.  Everyone seems keen to reassure us that he will continue to work on the TV show:

Spokespeople at Amstrad and The Apprentice's production company TalkbackThames were quick to issue reassurances that there would be no changes at the business reality TV show. Sir Alan's "eyes and ears", Margaret Mountford and Nick Hewer, "are continuing as Sir Alan's sidekicks", said one.

One problem with the show has always been that working for Amstrad did not seem like a very attractive option.  In future, the job on offer will presumably be with one of his other companies, which ought to help.

Red tape

Phiz is having a few problems getting some sort of visa to live in the UK:

Went to British Consulate today to apply for visa as Returning Resident. Gave them letter from work showing that I have worked for them since 1994, have been on secondment since 1999, and am now returning to the UK to continue working for them. Also gave them marriage certificate demonstrating I’m married to a British citizen and passport copies demonstrating that I am the mother of British citizens. Also gave them leasehold of our London flat.

Is there anything else you can give us to demonstrate your intention to settle in the UK, she asks.

Like what, I say.

Anything, she says.

Ooh, that’s helpful. Anything.

What?! What could that be? If being married to a Brit, the mother of Brits, owning a London flat and working for a British company for the past 13 years and with every intention of working for them for the next xxx years, so that I can cash in on my defined benefit pension, is not enough, what will convince them?

Bureaucrats, eh?


Yesterday London was hit by a tornado! The Sun has photographs of what it did to houses in a suburban street.  Scary stuff. 

The Guardian's picture is rubbish, but their story may be more informative:

Wild weather: floods, gales and the terrifying sight of a tornado in London

Just before 11am in a fashionable part of north London, Caroline Phillips, a freelance writer, thought the apocalypse had come. Sitting at the front window of her home writing about the benefits of complementary therapy, she looked up to see the sky turn black. A grey tornado, taller than a house, spewing debris and roaring like a jet, was heading straight for her. 

"I dived under my desk and started screaming hysterically," she said. "I had my arms over my head. I heard the windows shatter all over the house." Roofs were ripped off cars, dustbins took to the air, and the facades of houses crumbled to expose the insides of children's bedrooms, as an 1,800ft tornado, gusting to 110mph, tore through the area. 

The tornado came amid wild weather across much of Britain yesterday. More than 60 flights out of Heathrow airport were cancelled, trains were delayed in the south of England after flooding between Eastleigh and Fareham in Hampshire, P&O ferry services between Dover and Calais were cancelled, and huge seas raged off the Welsh coast in force 11 storms.

Makes me glad to be in Hong Kong.


Today is expected to be the hottest day ever in the UK (beating the record set 3 years ago).  Not only is it likely to be several degrees hotter than last week's hot weather here, but air conditioning is far less common.  I spent one summer working in an office in the centre of London that had no aircon and several smokers, and it was not a pleasant experience.  Makes me glad to be working in an office with aircon (and no smoking allowed) even if I can't see out of the windows.

Of course, the problem here in Hong Kong is that people use aircon too much, and set the temperature too low.  The government recommends 25.5 degrees, but there seems to be quite a lot of resistance to this. 

There was a piece about this in the SCMP on Sunday, highlighting several buildings where the temperature is significantly lower than that.  One justification offered was that if the temperature is set higher there is a problem with ventilation.  Ironically, this may be the result of manufacturers trying to cut down energy consumption (by switching off the fan when the desired temperature is reached), but the solution is simple enough - set the fan speed to high!!

Still on the subject of weather (well, hey, it makes a change from Simon Patkin), why is the Hong Kong Observatory still issuing warnings of thunderstorms after the storm has arrived and then leaving them in force long after the storm has moved away?

Sunday was a case in point.  There were a few isolated thunderstorms near the border at around 4 pm, so up went the Thunderstorm Warning.  For reasons known only to the Observatory, they announced that this warning would be in force until 6.30 pm.  Guess what?  There were no thunderstorms in Hong Kong from 4.15 (when the signal was raised) until 6.30 pm.  I believe that they did then lower the signal at 6 pm, but why wait so long to do this?

My problem with this is that when a thunderstorm Warning is in force, most (in fact, probably all) outdoor swimming pools are closed - even though there is no legal obligation to do this.  And apparently indoor swimming pools can be bad for you  according to yesterday's Times, which is somewhat unfortunate given that swimming is often recommended as a good form of exercise if you have asthma.  So it's official, then - Thunderstorm Warnings are bad for your health.            

Oh not, not vegetables

An intriguing quote from a union official, as reported in The Guardian:

John Nolan, national leader of Amicus, said the use of the vegetables was a totally unacceptable way of getting staff to perform. "It is demeaning to staff and it is demoralising to staff and it does not send a good message to customers when [they] go in and see this sort of method being employed by such a well-known bank," he said.

Sadly, the story turns out a whole lot duller than that quote might suggest.

Two tellers at branches of the bank in Glasgow and Paisley had the vegetables placed on their desks within full public view. In the first case, an 18-year-old male teller was said to be deeply upset by the cabbage put on his desk. In the second case, which only emerged yesterday, a 24-year-old had a cauliflower placed on her desk. She was apparently told she could only pass it on when someone opened an account.

How can you be deeply upset by a cabbage? 


Here's a story that combines food and weather. Perfect.

Tornado wreaks havoc in suburbs of Birmingham

Roofs were ripped off houses, cars hurled across roads and trees uprooted after a tornado struck high street shops and suburban streets in Birmingham yesterday, injuring at least 12 people.

Rows of houses were left with gaping windows as the twister turned the sky a dull brown, tore Victorian turrets off a primary school, and littered the area with glass, bricks, furniture and everything from shoes to fruit, torn from shop displays.

Why food?  Well, Ladypool Road is where you will find the original Balti restaurants.


I guess I have to say something about what happened in London yesterday.

The British government have been saying for a long time that it was a matter of "when" rather than "if" there was a major terrorist incident in London, and sadly they have been proved right.  Anyone who lived or worked in London when the terrorist threat came from Ireland will not be surprised that it was the transport system that was attacked.  As well as the large number of casualties, it causes huge disruption, and it seems inevitable that there will now be regular closures of stations because of suspicious packages.  Travelling across London is not a lot of fun at the best of times, and when you factor in service disruptions it gets even worse - though people soon become proficient at figuring out alternative routes.

I watched some of the 'rolling news' coverage on BBC World.  Lots of people talking without actually saying anything (because at that time no-one knew exactly what had happened).  The same footage of nothing much happening, repeated endlessly.  So-called experts making generalised comments about these type of incidents.  Basically pointless, because the known facts could be summarised in a five-minute bulletin, but I suppose that now they can do 'rolling news' they feel obliged to do it.   

The pain comes later

Well, London won.  We can now look forward to seven years of stories about construction delays as they struggle to build all the facilities they have promised.  Then many more years of paying the bills for all those facilities that really aren't required, as residents of Sydney, Athens, etc., now realize that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea.

Politicians are drawn like moths to the bright lights of the Olympics, seemingly unable to recognize that spending vast sums of money on an event that lasts a few weeks is not really a great idea.  Or at least not for a city that is already one of the most famous on the planet.  Though I suppose it means they will finally build Crossrail.

Amusing to see Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair (plus failed Tory politican Seb Coe) working together.  When they finally agree on something I suppose it's inevitable that they should be wrong...   

I have no ill-feelings towards the French, but Paris has been the overwhelming favourite for so long that it's rather entertaining to have an 'upset', and the bookmakers ending up looking a bit stupid (as recently as last week Paris was 6-1 on) though I don't suppose many people place bets so they probably don't care.

Continue reading "The pain comes later" »

Best foot forward

The Economist reports (subscription required) that what Chinese visitors to the UK want most of to go to factory outlets.  And the first choice of of 2,000 door-to-door salespeople from Amway is...Clarks shoes:

The trip took 700 of them to Bicester Village, a collection of designer-outlet stores near Oxford. Though many of the most expensive fashion brands have shops at Bicester, the only place where it was difficult to get through the door was Clarks, makers of frumpy but sensible shoes for British adults and schoolchildren. Some of the shoppers were filling suitcases with the shoes. During a previous Amway visit, the store had to hire security guards to restrict entry to the store. Why the crush?

Oddly, Clarks shoes are apparently seen as luxury items in China. The company reckons that the brand, which has been around since 1825, may be helped by its lingering colonial associations. Its presence in Hong Kong when the Chinese market was opening up may also have allowed it to get its products into smart department stores before the competition: although many of the shoes are made in Guangdong, they are pricier there than in Bicester. Evidently much planning had gone into the shopping expedition: some shoppers brought pieces of string cut to the length of a friend's shoe to get the size right, others brought cardboard cut-outs of a child's foot.

This is not altogether surprising.  If you read Chinese language newspapers or magazines in Hong Kong they often mention factory outlets in the UK.  Clarks shoes are definitely cheaper in the UK than here, and presumably the factory outlets have the lowest prices. 

I remember when I first came to Hong Kong being surprised to find that another famous British name - Marks & Spencer - also had a distinctly upmarket image in Hong Kong, with prices to match.  Then they reorganized and restructured, and these days their prices here are more reasonable.  I believe that Clarks are in the process of doing something similar (based on two newspapers articles I read recently), so perhaps there won't be any need to travel to the UK to buy their shoes at reasonable prices.

The Economist also says some interesting news:

At the moment, Chinese visitors can travel to Britain only on business or student visas. But from the end of July, they will be allowed to visit Britain as tourists, thanks to an agreement signed by the British and Chinese governments earlier this year.

It's interesting (to me) because if the British government is making it easier for Chinese citizens to visit the UK, one can hope that the Chinese government will make it easier (and cheaper) for Brits to get visas for China.

Swings and roundabouts

Well, I'm still not quite sure whether the British General Election was as dull as it seemed - a national swing from Labour to Conservative of 3% was obviously not enough to change the government, but underneath that there were more interesting things going on.

Mainly, as far as I could see, the unwinding of the unspoken deal whereby Labour and Liberal Democrat voters tried to keep out the Tories.  More than anything else, this was what gave the Labour Party such a landslide in 1997 and 2001, but the electoral system still seems to working in their favour (only 36% of the votes, but 55% of the seats).  The Conservatives still have a mountain to climb - if they gained three times as many seats next time even that wouldn't give them an overall majority.  And, if you assume that Iraq will be forgotten in 4-5 years and Gordon Brown might be more acceptable to many who voted Lib Dem yesterday, the Conservatives could be in for a long wait.

I watched some of BBC World's coverage this morning.  Rather than simply giving us the same coverage as you would get in the UK, they stick a few people in a small studio and do their best, with odd snippets from the main BBC coverage (mainly the excitable Peter Snow).  The logic seems to be that we need someone to tell us that Manchester in a large city up north and to explain terminology such as "hung parliament". 

Yes, a hung parliament.  Although the BBC/ITV Exit Poll was actually very accurate, Ivor Crewe kept insisting that the early results indicated that Labour would lose its overall majority.  This sounded mad at the time, and now I think we can put it up there with that marvellous Zogby prediction of the Presidential Election, filed under "delusional".
As now seems to be traditional, the Conservative leader announced his resignation the day after the election.  Their problem, however, is that the membership of the party will elect someone else who is far too right-wing in his place.  I can't help feeling that they'd have been better served by an even heavier defeat to bring them to their senses.  Bring back William Hague, that's what I say.

Only joking.