The Iron Brady

Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer talks to sporting executive-turned TV star Karren Brady – the Conservative Party’s ambassador for UK small businesses

SHE IS known as the First Lady of Football, but Karren Brady’s list of accolades extends far beyond the beautiful game. Wikipedia describes Brady as a sporting executive, novelist, author, TV broadcaster and columnist. And as of September last year (when she was appointed the government’s small business ambassador), she can add “politician” to an already expansive list.

The Apprentice star has also long been renowned as a champion of women in business. In 2002, she became the first female managing director of a Premier League football club (Birmingham City). But in an industry long-considered a man’s game, Brady had to battle her way to the top. Back when she met the squad at Birmingham, one player quipped: “I can see your tits in that shirt,” to which an unfazed Brady famously replied: “When I sell you to Crewe, you won’t be able to see them from there, will you?”

But while her accomplishments range from sport to showbiz, today Brady is discussing her foray into politics. When her government appointment was announced at the Conservative Party conference, Brady’s subsequent speech silenced any suggestion that she might be unqualified for the high-profile position. In her opening line, she said: “I’m a businesswoman, I’m a business owner, I’m a company director and I’m a mother of two.”

So is the government doing enough to support small companies? “It’s already doing some key things – like the startup loans providing funding to entrepreneurs, to the introduction of the new Employment Allowance [which wipes up to £2,000 off the National Insurance bill of every business].”

But part of Brady’s game plan as small business ambassador involves writing a document for the chancellor, offering practical ways the government can help. Already, she has travelled the country meeting business owners, and raising the profile of small firms in their communities. Because Brady knows how tough life as a small business owner can be. “When you’re the founder of a small firm, you’re the managing director, the marketing director, the finance director, you answer the phones and you make the tea. It can be very lonely.”

Brady’s path to her current role as vice-chairman of West Ham is well-documented. She was brought up in Edmonton and educated at Aldenham School, Elstree. Despite gaining four A-Levels, Brady decided against university – unsurprising, perhaps, for the woman who, when asked about her first ambition responds: “to be independent.” At 19, she secured a role at David Sullivan’s Sport Newspapers, becoming a director at 20.

When Sullivan bought Birmingham City FC three years later, he appointed Brady as a managing director. Was she the obvious choice? “I’d worked for David since I was 19. There’s a unique relationship between a chief executive and a chairman. It’s based on trust and the ability to deliver. We both trusted each other, and he knew I could deliver.”

But was she a football expert? “No,” she laughs. “I probably knew slightly less about the sport than I know now. But I never put myself forward as an expert. That’s why I employ a manager and a scout – these people deal with all of the things I don’t know about.” As a 23-year old woman, how did she win respect? “I rolled up my sleeves and got things moving.” At the end of her first year, the club made a trading profit for the first time in its modern history.

And she changed the club’s culture – when she left, 75 per cent of senior executives at director level were women. At West Ham, she’s boosted the proportion of women in senior roles to 60 per cent. It is prior culture, she says, that holds women back as entrepreneurs. “But women are getting more and more role models. Confidence and self-esteem are finally getting into our DNA.”

She points to the “significant” proportion of startups founded by women. “They may be starting them as hobbies, but then they’re growing them, and that’s important.” There’s a misconception, she thinks, that every woman who likes business wants to own a huge conglomerate. “In fact, most women want a well-paid job, respect, and high quality childcare. If they’re not getting that, they’ll set up their own business to ensure they do.”

As for boardroom quotas, Brady believes diversity must come at chief executive level. “It’s about the executive directors – the women working in the business.” Nonetheless, she only sits on one board on principle, because “if people like me do more than one, we’re filling quotas other women can’t get.”

Since her appointment in 1993, Brady has been gradually building her profile outside football. But it was her role as Lord Sugar’s sidekick on The Apprentice that propelled her to national brand status. Her involvement coincided with a shift in the show’s format: no longer would the winner become the Labour peer’s executive. Instead, contestants would compete to become his business partner. “Alan is a self-made person, and I think he wanted to help other people get their businesses started. It created a different type of candidate for the show – these people needed the skills to start something from nothing.”

Good businesses, Brady says, have short-term goals and long-term ambitions. “And good business leaders are those who can communicate and drive passion into the company. But they’re also the people willing to get their hands dirty, to get the job done when it needs to get done.”

These are precisely the sort of people competing in this year’s Nectar Business Small Business Awards, at which Brady is lead judge. But while last year’s winner, Melissa Burton (of Goody Good Stuff) has taken her business global, not all entrepreneurs experience such fortune. Around 75 per cent of new businesses die in their first ten years. So what advice would Brady offer? “Lots of people tell entrepreneurs to do a business plan. But equally important is to write an action plan. How you’re going to drive the business forward, generate revenues, acquire customers.”

As for Brady, you can’t help but wonder what the future holds. Surely she is exactly what the Tories need to fix their women problem? “I have no plans to go into politics. My ambitions are for West Ham. I have the Olympic Stadium to deliver by 2016 – and that’s a huge project. I employ 800 people, and getting to 801 is very important to me,” she says.

Karren Brady is the lead judge of the Nectar Business Small Business Awards 2014, which are free to enter and open to all UK-based SMEs until 30 April. Winners will receive £2,000 cash and 50,000 Nectar points, as well as the unique opportunity to receive bespoke business advice from Karren herself. For further information:

Company name: West Ham United

Founded: 1895

Number of staff: 800 (full and part time)

Turnover: Over £100m

Job title: Vice-chairman

Age: 45

Born: Edmonton, London

Lives: London

Studied: Aldenham School, Elstree

Drinking: Red wine

Eating: Anything not cooked by me

Reading: I’ve just been given a copy of Thrive, by Arianna Huffington, though I haven’t started yet

Favourite Business Book: What You See is What You Get, by Lord Sugar

First ambition: To be independent

Talents: I can drive a car from the back seat!

Heroes: Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Annie Lennox, Emmeline Pankhurst

Motto: Persistence and determination alone are important

Most likely to say: Never

Least likely to say: Maybe