She was fired from The Apprentice after rubbing almost everyone up the wrong way. But Susan Ma won a fan in Lord Sugar and now she’s having the last laugh
Susan Ma arrives at Fabulous sporting the biggest smile we’ve seen all week. We don’t blame her. As the woman who persuaded notoriously stubborn Lord Sugar to change his mind, she’s got every reason to feel pleased with herself.
Less than a year since she was fired from BBC1’s The Apprentice, organic skincare businesswoman Susan has become the first loser Shugs has ever invested in. It’s a coup for someone written off by her rival contestants as too young, naive and weak. Especially as she may prove to be the biggest Apprentice winner of all. Granted, beauty and Alan Sugar don’t exactly go together, but he spotted potential in Susan, and offered her a deal she couldn’t refuse.
“I was obviously disappointed to be fired because I went on the show to win,” says 23-year-old Susan, who at 21 when the show was filmed, was the youngest ever Apprentice contestant. “But now this has happened it doesn’t feel like I lost out. Lord Sugar’s investment means I can think bigger.”
Rise to the top
While she doesn’t want to say exactly how much money Lord Sugar has pumped into her company, Susan reveals his 50/50 share means she’s been able to employ 10 staff, build a website, and move her business, Tropic Skin Care, from her kitchen to new premises in Croydon.
“I have huge respect for Lord Sugar and I think he has respect for me too,” she says. “He can seem a bit scary though, I suppose…”
It’s fair to say Susan had a hairy ride on The Apprentice last year, reaching the final three while splitting viewer opinions and irritating other contestants.
Lord Sugar’s right-hand man Nick Hewer said she had “a knack of rubbing people up the wrong way.” And right-hand woman Karren Brady branded her “beyond stupid” for asking: “Do the French like their children?” when choosing products to sell across the Channel.
But she was also tenacious, project managing her team through the France task to victory, thanks to a deal that she brokered with a phone shop. And Lord Sugar was impressed, describing her as “the mouse that roared” after she defended herself in a boardroom battle against Jim “Jedi” Eastwood.
It was this determination which piqued the interest of the 65-year-old multimillionaire who requested a post-show meeting and was wooed into the girlie world of beauty products.
Susan says: “He called me in to talk and said: ‘I’m going to invest’. I wasn’t expecting that. My heart was racing as I signed the contract. But as soon as I got out I called everyone!”
Susan’s rise to the top is all the more remarkable given her tough start in life. Born under the one-child policy in Communist China to Mum Shu Mai and Dad Mark, both Chinese, there were no luxuries when she was growing up. She says: “We lived in a tiny house with my grandparents. We had no gas, and I was cold all the time during winter.”
Determined to give his daughter a better start in life, Susan’s dad left for Australia when she was just one, starting out as a butcher before spotting a gap in the market for importing Chinese-made Australian souvenirs. By the time he had bought a house for his family to move into, Susan was six.
“He visited once when I was three,” she shrugs. “Phone calls were too expensive – we couldn’t afford them, so we kept in touch by posting cassettes to each other. My dad was a grafter. Now he has a string of shops across Australia and owns several houses over there.”
Sadly, six years after the family were reunited, Susan’s parents divorced and her mum moved to London with Susan.
“My mum hardly spoke English so I had to sort out school myself, and debit cards and car insurance for my mum. It’s weird now when I think of what we got through,” she says.
Susan’s dad funded her private education at Croydon High School for Girls, and she went on to read philosophy and economics at University College London. She started developing Tropic Skin Care while still at school.
“I used to see people selling home-made bath bombs and soaps on Greenwich Market. And my mum liked the idea of developing cruelty-free, natural skincare. We consulted herbalists, microbiologists and at the age of 16 I went on an organic skincare course.Mum and I developed a face cream and cleanser in our kitchen to sell at the market. Eventually we raised enough money to buy our own house in Croydon.” It’s where Susan still lives with her mum.
“I wanted my own company, I love working for myself,” she says of her entrepeneurial background. Only she’s not quite working for herself now…
When we meet Susan and Lord Sugar, she almost curtseys at her business partner as he brushes past, that trademark frown firmly fixed on his forehead.
“What I liked was she didn’t stop pestering me until I invested,” says Lord Sugar. “I was impressed with her business plan, she listened to what I said and went away after the show and worked at it.”
And worked and worked. Susan reckons she’s worked solidly for the last 60 days. Thankfully the other man in her life – boyfriend and childhood sweetheart Rob Turner, 24 – is understanding.
“We met at a friend’s party eight years ago and it was love at first sight,” she says. “He’s a good egg. We feel too young to get married at the moment, but who knows what might happen.”
Talking to Susan we can see why the grumpiest man in business was won over. Not only is she hardwired for business, she’s so enthusiastic about her products we fear she may break into song.
“My products are purely plant derived, they haven’t been tested on animals and are so natural they are suitable for vegans. We’re selling in boutique organic shops and online but hope to expand to larger high-end retailers in the future.”
And has she managed to soften Lord Sugar up with a spot of skin cream yet?
“I asked if I could show him the moisturiser, but he wasn’t interested. He said his wife uses the products, but it’s not his thing. I’m determined to give him a facial though. I’m sure he’d love it.”
While Susan normally manages to come out on top, we don’t fancy her chances on this one.
WHERE ARE THE APPRENTICES NOW?
Series One Tim Campbell, 34
Nice-but-Tim became a director of the health and beauty division of Lord Sugar’s company, Amstrad, in 2005. After two years he left to start the Bright Ideas Trust, which offers funding and advice to young people who want to start their own company. He was recently awarded an MBE – go him!
Series Two Michelle Dewberry, 32
Former supermarket shelf-stacker Michelle won the £100,000 job but walked out after eight months. She then started up Chiconomise.com, a website featuring discount deals for women.
Series Three Simon Ambrose, 32
Well-spoken Simon went to work for Lord Sugar’s property company Amsprop in 2007. He lasted three years, leaving in 2010, and is now making sweet music as chairman of the London Contemporary Orchestra.
Series Four Lee McQueen, 34
In 2008, winner Lee landed a job with Shug’s digital media company, Amscreen. This, despite being exposed as a big fat fibber on his Apprentice CV during the show. He left in 2010 to set up the Raw Talent Academy, which helps those without a degree get a head start in business.
Series Five Yasmina Siadatan, 31
Yasmina started at Amscreen Health Care in 2009, became pregnant and handed in her notice earlier this year just before her maternity leave ended, announcing she was expecting baby number two. Congrats, Yasmina!
Series Six Stella English, 32
Steely Stella won The Apprentice in 2010 and a job at Sugar’s IT company, Viglen. She quit the job in May 2011, stating that she felt she was just a “glorified PA”, and describing her time on the show and subsequent job as “an appalling experience”. She’s now suing Lord Sugar for constructive dismissal. Ouch.
Series Seven Tom Pellereau, 32
Inventor Tom was given £250,000 by Lord Sugar last year when the show’s prize changed from a job at one of the tycoon’s companies to an investment in a business. Tom launched his genius curved nail file in March this year. It’s already a must-have piece of beauty kit in the Fabulous office!
Visit Tropicskincare.com for more information