APPRENTICE winner Dr Leah Totton has told how she “tortured” Lord Alan Sugar during the first year working together.
The Irish entrepreneur, who runs a chain of cosmetic clinics with the billionaire, has admitted she also cried down the phone to him in the early days as his business partner.
“People think when the show ends, and you are crowned the Apprentice, you don’t have much to do with Lord Sugar,” she says.
“It couldn’t be further from the truth. I spoke to that man every day for a year because I did not have any experience in opening or running a business.
“I needed a lot of support in that first year.
“Seriously, I had him tortured. But he is really unphased, I have never seen anything like it. He has the thickest skin I’ve ever seen.”
Recalling how she turned to Lord Sugar during one of the hardest moments in her business journey Leah told a podcast with Harper James Solicitors: “We were just about to open the doors to our first clinic when a guy next door to me, who I shared an entrance with and who I thought was a friend, effectively copied my business model and undercut me on all of the prices.
“I was really upset and I rang Lord Sugar that night in tears. I said: ‘This is a disaster’. At that moment he was just very stern. He said ‘Leah, you need to pull yourself together, do not be this emotional about it, this is just business, he’s trying to make a quick buck. People are going to come to you because it’s you, because it’s us, you’re going to be better than him and you need to remember that. Back yourself and stop thinking about him’.”
The no-nonsense advice worked.
Leah, who claimed the BBC Apprentice crown in 2013, has gone from strength to strength and the pair are now running a chain of three clinics together.
At the moment she owns three Dr Leah clinics specialising in non-surgical cosmetic medicine – one on London’s Chiswell Street, one based in Loughton, Essex and another on London’s Glentworth Street, which is known as the Baker Street clinic.
And she has repaid the £250,000 investment he made in her in full.
“I don’t really think about that side of it. It’s nice to have paid him back. But I’ve learned so much in the years since the Apprentice that money can’t buy,” Leah says.
“The biggest lesson is that Lord Sugar is obsessed with the bottom line and with margin. It is at his core. He’s taught me the fundamentals of business and how they are turnover, costs and bottom line. That’s all that matters. And it has been really important for me to understand that..”
However Leah admits the pair have now had to shelve ambitious expansion plans due to the “devastating” impact of Covid-19.
They had planned to open a new premises at Canary Wharf in East London and also launch a skincare range.
But those plans are now on hold and will probably remain so for at least three years.
She said: “We’re going to trade and expand in a much more conservative way than what we had forecast. The effects are devastating really to small and medium sized businesses.
“As a business we were doing very, very well, prior to this.
“But 2021 is going to be a challenging year. We’re going to be facing the biggest economic recession in living memory.
“It would be crazy to be planning any further expansion. It is certainly not in our plans, not only for the next year but for the next three years.”
“But I don’t feel any sense of: ‘Oh forget this, this is too much work’ or ‘this is too much stress’. No way. I still feel incredibly passionate about what I do,
And that will never change.”
It is seven years since Leah, who previously worked in the accident and emergency department of a London hospital, convinced Lord Sugar to invest £250,000 in her business.
She initially intended to call NIKS – ‘skin’ backwards.
But she was persuaded by the Labour peer to change to Dr Leah.
The inspiration behind her business idea was a botched procedure carried out on a relative in Northern Ireland.
Her ordeal has driven Leah and she now campaigns for better regulations to protect patients from backstreet clinics who often provide dangerous and unregulated procedures.
She still regularly treats patients who come to her having fallen victim to such cowboy practitioners.
“Many businesses can be born out of something that’s happened in your life – which can be a positive or a negative event.
“The reasons I launched the business remain at the heart of the work I do everyday: to offer safe services that help people look and feel better.
“They are the driving force behind what we stand for.”
And, offering advice to others launching their own enterprises, Leah adds:
“My best advice is minimise your overheads. If you are thinking about starting a business and see an opportunity, by all means go ahead.
“But be very, very wary of committing to large overheads at the moment – because we are in a period of unprecedented uncertainty. “