Mike Soutar interviewing on the Apprentice in 2018
Mike became editor-in-chief of Maxim where he increased circulation from 1 million to 2.5 million. Credit: BBC

Generation Z are getting an increasingly bad press. Workshy, entitled and insecure in the workplace, according to some views.

A Gallup poll found that 54% of Gen Z employees were not engaged in the workplace and branded ‘generation disconnected,’ they were found to feel more stress than the older generation.

Other research indicates that nearly 1 in 10 young unemployed people never intend to start working and young people have ‘lost hope’ in what they believe is a ‘hostile labour market.

But Mike Soutar – Alan Sugar’s ruthless interviewer for the final stages of The Apprentice, perhaps surprisingly, has a more sympathetic take.

“It’s probably more difficult for young people entering the workplace now, than it was for me,” he acknowledges. “Most workplaces are thinner in terms of their resources, the work is harder and more relentless now.

“I don’t think Gen Z are any different to whatever generation I am as people. I appreciate the different pressures on people. But you sort of have to get on with it.”

He still thinks, however, that work ethic is vital to success.

Mike says, “It seems an easy thing to say, ‘it’s not my fault, I don’t want to work,’ I find it very difficult to empathise with that point of view.

“Without work and without purpose, I’m not sure what the point of life is.”

For himself, working improves his self-esteem and the opportunity to earn money gives him choices, he says.

“I can’t imagine how awful it would be to make a choice not to work.

“I don’t understand the mindset of somebody who would do that, unless there were good reasons that stopped them like physical or mental conditions.”

Mike, 56, now works as a portfolio director, investor and advisor, mentoring young entrepreneurs. He rose to wider fame for his sharp-tongued interview style on the BBC business reality TV show, where he grills the candidates battling it out for £250k investment in their business ideas.

He grew up in Fife, leaving school at 17 to work for DC Thomson, a family-owned Scottish publishing company in 1980.

“The publishing company was looking for editorial assistants for their teenage magazines, I edited the school magazine, and I thought that sounds like fun.”

He went on to a magazine called Secrets, working on romantic fiction for older women.

He says: “I was the case room boy and my job was to run up and down the stairs where the depositors and typesetters worked. I also wrote the horoscopes.”

After he tired of deciding whether the Moon was rising in Leo or Saturn’s perspective on the Sun, he moved to London and became a press officer with not great results.

“I was possibly the worst press officer there’s ever been and got the sack after about a year,” he says.

Mike worked for a super-successful pop music mag Smash Hits, became managing director of Kiss FM radio and editor-in-chief of Maxim magazine before he was headhunted by IPC Media to join the board.

He went on to set up a consultancy with his friend and launched magazines, Shortlist and Stylist, breaking the mould of a free magazine with their high production values and well-known journalists as columnists and contributors – a model that became known as ‘freemium’.

He says, “We raised £4m from different investors to launch a free magazine, it got to a point where we were generating £30m turnover every year.”

He landed his gig on The Apprentice in 2012.

“Researchers from the BBC phoned up and said, ‘we’re working on a business programme, and we wondered if we could come and speak to you.’ I said, ‘is it The Apprentice? I’ve watched every episode.’”

He had to sign a non-disclosure agreement before BBC workers visited him and only then did they reveal it was The Apprentice.

“I got a call the next day from the producer saying, ‘Alan Sugar would like to meet you, what are you doing tomorrow?’ I went and met Alan for the first time, he asked questions about me and my background.”

Mike was offered a role as interviewer, he says, “I did it the first year. I thought that’s amazing, something to tell the grandkids.” He kept his role for 11 years and begins filming for series 18 of The Apprentice in summer 2023.

Mike Soutar and Daniel Elahi interview on The Apprentice
Mike and Daniel’s 2018 interview went viral with people still approaching him about it.

Mike’s interviews have gone viral as he finds holes in the candidate’s business plans and debunks their astonishing claims.

As a journalist by trade, he is used to researching and digging around. His most memorable interview is with Daniel Elahi, the candidate who claimed he had sold over a million units on Amazon but only 40,000 on his business plan.

Mike recalls, “I confronted him with the evidence and rather than saying ‘yes, I exaggerated on Amazon’ which would have been embarrassing for him, he tried to deny it and I thought well, I’ve got you.

“It was the iterative approach to breaking him down, where I got him to keep admitting it was more and more him, until he admitted it definitely was him.”

Mike’s tough persona on the show is not always a reflection of his personality.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve, I’m not necessarily the easiest person to work with because I can be a bit chippy and I like things to be good but I’m also quite funny,” he says.

Mike advises young people growing their career, “You’ve got to have that belief by being diligent, working hard, engaging with the people around you, and having a sense of where that might lead you.

“It’s good to be ambitious, all the stuff I do is through personal recommendation.

“I go for opportunities where you can learn new things, I do things that are scary, because that’s the thing that reminds you that you’re alive.”

The next series of The Apprentice will be on BBC1 in 2024.