Jim Eastwood: 'The Apprentice was brilliant for me, but now they're trying to sensationalise it with bigger, more disruptive people'
Ex-Apprentice star Jim Eastwood (38), vice president of Groupon UK and Ireland, tells Claire McNeilly about what alter ego Jedi Jim did for his career and how his own real-life hero is inspirational wife Paula.
Q. We first encountered you five years ago on The Apprentice, the hit BBC One TV reality show during which Lord Alan Sugar seeks out his next business partner. You were one of the final four contestants and now you're now a successful businessman and sales director of Groupon UK and Ireland. What does that entail?
A. There are around 200 salespeople across the UK and Ireland operating in one of the world's fastest-growing internet companies, which is Groupon, and I'm responsible for the revenues that the UK and Ireland generate. We're the biggest entity outside of our parent, which is the US.
It is doing really well. Online sales are growing and trending upwards. The stigma of getting something at a bargain has disappeared with the big Range Rovers you see parked outside discount supermarkets, and Groupon plays into that. It has become less about discount and more about creating a marketplace. You can go to Groupon today and search for something like you would on Amazon or Google, whereas before it would've been an email. Now, you can search for a haircut or whatever you need - there's inventory now.
Q. The job you do now is undoubtedly rewarding, although it doesn't have the high profile of those halcyon days on one of the UK's most watched TV shows. Do you miss the attention you attracted then?
A. I did get lots of media-related opportunities in the first year or two afterwards. I never pursued most of them because I wanted a professional business career and to remain credible. I don't regret doing that.
Q. Presumably the highlight from those days was being voted one of Ireland's sexiest males, up there with Liam Neeson and Calum Best?
A. The Apprentice was one of the most positive experiences of my life. The halo effect that you get from it is very flattering. I didn't go looking for it, but if people are saying nice things about you it does no harm.
Q. What about life away from the public's gaze?
A. I'm married to Paula (36), who's an occupational therapist, but she's currently focusing on looking after our three children - Charlotte Rose (4), Ethan (3) and Erin (2). We live in Cookstown, but I work in London between two and four days every week.
Q. What was it like growing up in Cookstown?
A. Cookstown hasn't changed that much, which is a good thing. It's pretty safe and it's accessible to other places, but it's in the countryside. We live on the outskirts of town, so we look across at green fields and cows, but the town is within walking distance. We grew up in the town just off the main street. I have four older sisters - Yvette (46), Lenore (45), Gillian (44) and Cliodhna (43) - and one older brother, Bill (42). My father remarried, so I've also got a younger sister, Danielle (29), and a brother, Ben (16).
Q. Were you a competitive child?
A. As the youngest of six, yes. I played sport - football, Gaelic football - and cycled to a high level, so I was always competitive through sport. I think as a young child sport probably shaped my competitiveness.
Q. Having Harvard on your CV is pretty impressive. Tell us about that.
A. When I was seven I had the reading age of a four-year-old, my mum tells me. She was a teacher and then went into the Education Board. She was a real 'stay in school' type, saying I should knuckle down when all that I wanted to do was kick a football or cycle my bike. Even in teenage years, the idea of going to Harvard would have been foreign - it actually wouldn't have been a notion at all - so I'm very grateful for that opportunity. I went in 2007 and studied at the Harvard Kennedy School after being selected as what's called a Leader for Tomorrow - an all-Ireland initiative. It was a fantastic experience and I met some wonderful people I'm still in touch with today.
Q. Are you also still in contact with any of your fellow contestants on The Apprentice?
A. I'm still in contact with the people I was in the final with because you're literally with one another for three months all day, every day in intense situations. You get to know them well.
We're all busy and having families, but we do stay in touch. The person I probably keep in most contact with is Helen Milligan-Smith. Tom Pellereau is right up there also, and he still works with Lord Sugar. Out of everybody, I'm probably still mostly in contact with Lord Sugar.
Q. And what is Lord Sugar really like?
A. He's a good guy to have on your side. He's exactly as he comes across on TV, and I don't feel that's a facade. He's gruff, abrupt, doesn't suffer fools, incisive and, obviously, terribly successful and wealthy. He's from meagre beginnings, and that probably shaped who he is. He's probably had to fight and scrap to get to where he is. That's admirable.
Q. With the benefit of hindsight, was being on the show a good or a bad thing?
A. Unbelievably good. All the things I do now, I wanted to do. The Apprentice certainly fast-tracked those. I would like to think that I would have achieved those things anyway, but I'm very grateful for being put in a shop window in a positive light. But just to caveat that, the people in the first half of the show, whose names we don't remember... it can be very borderline career suicide for some.
Q. Did you ever have any concerns that you might portray yourself in a bad light?
A. No, I didn't. I went in with a very clear focus and a very clear goal that I had an idea and someone had to win it, so why couldn't that be me? Then, after filming was over, it finally dawned on me that 12 million people were going to be watching this, which I think was a blessing in disguise. If you think about that too much beforehand, you would start to perform as opposed to being natural.
Q. So The Apprentice was an accurate reflection of who you are?
A. I really think it was. Thankfully, I was in it long enough to tell a story about me, but I watched talented and competent people who made one mistake, and that's all you got to see of them and then they were gone.
Q. Do you ever dream of what your life would be like now if you'd won? Do you envy your compatriot Leah Totton, for instance?
A. No. Leah - I don't know her - did tremendously well. Of course, I'd loved to have won, but I wouldn't have wanted Lord Sugar breathing down my neck. You'd be working for and reporting to him - which would be excellent, don't get me wrong - but I think the opportunities that it afforded me have been better suited to me.
Q. You must have thought you had things in the bag when Sir Alan described you as "the world's greatest salesman"?
A. I thought to myself, "Where's the catch here?" But I was very flattered. I think people remember me more for Jedi Jim, though.
Q. Where did the Jedi Jim nickname come from?
A. It came from Dara O'Briain. During the first two tasks I asked people to do things - "Can you do this? Can you give me money off? Can you phone these people?" I was just asking people to do things, but the way it came across on TV was that I was convincing them to do it with some Jedi-type mind tricks.
So on task two, Dara said on his show that "Jedi Jim" had emerged as one of the contenders. And then people like Pete Snodden jumped on it and every week it was, "What's Jedi Jim up to next?" It was a compliment, and every time I went into a negotiation TV portrayed that the other person had no hope because they were up against Jedi Jim, which was a nice accolade.
Q. Your business plan was rejected. Looking back, could it have worked with Sugar's backing?
A. My business plan was to provide school children with employability skills via the mechanism of E-learning to give it scope and scale.
I went into schools before The Apprentice and conducted workshops on employability skills because if you think about your experience as a student you learnt from a textbook primarily and then you went out into the world and you had to learn all these practical skills that if you didn't have a job or family business were totally foreign to you. Employability skills are the connection between education and the workplace.
I'm the ambassador for Young Enterprise, which does exactly what my business plan intended to do, only from a charitable basis. My business plan wasn't condemned - it was felt to be more charity-based. It's the charity's 30th anniversary this year. I was approached by people who said they knew I wanted my idea to be a business, but they asked me if I'd do it from a charity standpoint, and I jumped at it. I will be hosting the Young Enterprise Northern Ireland annual fundraising ball at the Culloden on September 15 as Young Enterprise ambassador.
Q. Do you still get stick for that moment in the interview edition when you were told to avoid cliches but then told your Northern Ireland compatriot, Margaret Mountford: "I'm what it says on the tin"?
A. Yes I do. The edit made it so funny. I laughed, my family laughed. I walked into the interview with Margaret and I gave her a hug - although normally you shake someone's hand - because she just struck me as the type of person that everyone knows and loves. She hugged me back.
Q. Has The Apprentice run its course? A lot of fans are saying it's becoming formulaic and tired, bereft of any real fresh ideas.
A. People tell me they haven't watched it since 2011, the year I was in it. That year was brilliant. They just keep trying to sensationalise it since then and put in bigger, more disruptive characters. I haven't watched a lot of it since. Three kids, busy job, running from pillar to post. I'm not the best person to comment on that. However, it was brilliant for me, and millions of people continue to tune in, so the recipe has got something going for it.
Q. And who inspires you in your life?
A. My wife inspires me - picture three kids under three and a husband who works away a lot. She's the bedrock and it allows me to create a future for us and our family knowing that the kids have got the best person in the world looking after them. She loves that and is very supportive in anything I pursue.
Q. Tell us something unusual about yourself.
A. I'm the one person not on Facebook. I would rather be sitting enjoying my dinner with my wife than taking photographs of it and sharing it with people I only half know. I like to be in the moment. If you want to communicate with someone in the workplace, walk over to their desk.