ANYONE willing to succeed the much-loved Margaret Mountford as Alan Sugar’s sidekick on The Apprentice is clearly on first-name terms with daunting tasks, but Karren Brady may have surpassed herself with the role of vice-chairman at West Ham. Among the Premier League’s most illustrious clubs but staring down the barrel of financial ruin, they are £110m in debt and facing further huge losses if they cannot scramble clear of relegation in the next seven weeks. Brady, one of Britain’s most high-profile businesswomen with 17 years’ experience in football, has been tempted back to the game by the Hammers’ new owners and tasked with resuscitating their off-field performance. Or as she puts it, in characteristically bluff terms, “bridging the gap between financial disaster and running a business”.
West Ham ran into trouble when their Icelandic former owners lost a fortune in the credit crunch, while costly legal battles have deepened their worries. However the club’s new proprietors, David Sullivan and David Gold, who hired the 23-year-old Brady to run Birmingham in 1993 and made her appointment their first move when they bought West Ham in January, attribute much of the blame to mismanagement by the Nordic regime. Brady has previously referred to £62,000 being lavished on taxis in the space of nine months and, although she is reluctant to offer more specifics, her description of the organisation, or lack of, that she inherited at Upton Park is damning.
“The reason West Ham is in the situation it’s in is the lack of controls,” says Brady, dubbed the First Lady of Football. “Everybody can do anything they like at any given time. So you can spend what you want, how you want, when you want, and nobody checks, authorises or processes it. And that is why the club is in a big mess. Nobody knows the cost of any sale either. If they are selling a [hospitality] package that includes 10 meals and five bottles of champagne, they haven’t worked out the difference between what it costs to put the event on and what the profit is. I’d never experienced a business lacking such controls. And without any strategy, really. I hate that, when you go to a football club and say ‘What do you think you are going to do this year?’ And they say ‘Well, I hope we do better than last year’. Well, I think that’s leaving a little bit too much to fate.”
A dire situation could yet turn disastrous if the Hammers drop out of the top flight. With eight games remaining – the first tonight against Wolves – they dangle three points above the relegation zone. Ticket and shirt sponsorship revenue for the next few seasons has already been banked to keep the club afloat, while what income remains will be slashed to the tune of at least £30m if they drop into the Championship. “It would be a very difficult challenge,” says Brady, who is being paid directly by Sullivan and Gold rather than the club.
Portsmouth became the biggest club yet to go into administration earlier this year – can West Ham avoid going the same way if they go down? “The club can survive, oh yes,” she offers. “In what form it survives is another question.” She adds: “I think people at West Ham think there has been some severe cost-cutting already but it will be far worse if we are relegated.”
Brady, 40, is known as a savvy operator and is too canny to be drawn on Sullivan’s remarks that his players and manager, the popular Gianfranco Zola, are overpaid – “what is relevant is I have to make sure the club is in a position to pay the wages” – but says Zola has been hampered by injuries and calls the Italian “a very good manager”. She lauds the club’s famous academy, which has spawned England stars Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Jermain Defoe, and says any cuts will not affect youth development. “That would have to be ring-fenced because that is one of the very big strengths of West Ham.”
One of Brady’s key objectives is to secure a deal for West Ham to play at the £537m Olympic Stadium in Stratford post-2012, which she calls “a once in a lifetime opportunity”. “It seems obvious, if there is a stadium being built a few streets away in our district costing half a billion pounds then, rather than dismantle it or not use it when the Games finish, that we should have it.” The arena will hold 80,000 and, although capacity is likely to be reduced after the Games, will still offer more earning potential than 35,000-seater Upton Park. Sceptics ask how an athletics legacy will be retained and whether West Ham will pay to lease the stadium; Brady says: “We have to look at the costings of it, and that’s the process we’re undergoing now.”
Another potential snag could be Brady’s eagerness to sell naming rights for West Ham’s next home – be it the Olympic Stadium or not – as Arsenal have for the Emirates Stadium. “I’m very for it. I think anything you can do to generate revenue that isn’t from the football supporter is a good thing. If we did move we would most certainly be looking for a stadium sponsor, whilst remaining honest to our heritage and the fact the stadium has been borne out of the Olympics, we’d have to be very sensitive to that.” Brady also believes the club may be able to attract sponsorship for their academy, adding: “It’s about looking at where sponsors want to be associated with your football club.”
Portsmouth’s plight has given momentum to plans to toughen up football’s financial rules, with moves in the pipeline that would force clubs to break even. “If that was the rule among all clubs in the world, then maybe that’s something we would look at. What we can’t have is that England has to break even and Italy can do what it likes,” she says. “It’s how it’s monitored, managed and implemented. You could have a situation where the owner could sponsor the shirts, putting in £50m; the club would break even but it hasn’t really generated £50m of income.”
If the West Ham job were not hard enough, she crams it into three days a week. The rest of her time she spends on myriad other roles: her new billing on The Apprentice, non-executive directorships at Channel 4, Mothercare and Sport England, various newspaper and magazine columns and England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Married to Burton Albion manager Paul Peschisolido, whom she met when he was a player at Birmingham, she is a proud parent and says the title ‘working mother’ fits well as “my children and my work are the two most important things in my life”. Brady is an active campaigner for more women in the boardroom, is proud 75 per cent of her senior managers at Birmingham were female and says the sexism she encountered initially no longer exists.
Such a demanding workload means Brady works a seven-day week, and she revels in the motto: “nothing is work unless you’d rather be doing something else”. A brain haemorrhage suffered four years ago only reminded her how much she enjoys her many roles, and, although the danger has now passed, she prefers not to dwell on it. “If you think about it too often you’d probably crawl up into a ball and not do much.” That is hardly something of which Brady could be accused.
Karren Brady is an ambassador for the Nokia E72 In Action campaign – sharing tips on how Brits can run their business and social life from a mobile. For more information visit: nokia.co.uk/e72inaction
CV | KARREN BRADY
Work: Started out at Saatchi & Saatchi, moved to LBC and Sport Newspapers before being made MD of Birmingham City in 1993, where she stayed until the club’s sale last year. Appointed vice-chairman of West Ham in January 2010. Non-executive roles include Channel 4 and Mothercare. Media work includes The Apprentice and a weekly column in The Sun newspaper
Education: Poles Convent boarding school, Ware; Aldenham School 6th Form, Elstree
Lives: Solihull, West Midlands
Family: Married to Paul with two children, Sophia and Paolo