By Joan Bainbridge

Profiles of Karren Brady often start, or run with a headline, declaring her to be the first lady of football. But this is hardly accurate. For while Brady did marry a footballer, and clearly revels in the glamour and celeb status that comes with her high profile, her success is all her own. She has earned her status and it has nothing to do with who she is married to.

For when Brady joined the league of WAGS (she married Canadian-born and then Birmingham City striker, Paul Peschisolido in 1995 and has two children with him) she was managing director of Birmingham City football club. This is a role she took on at the tender age of 23. It made her headline news, as both her youth and gender was extraordinary in the world of football.

Turning loss into profit

Despite her youth and lack of knowledge of the football business, Brady succeeded in turning around the fortunes of Birmingham. When she started at the club it was in administration but by the end of her first year it had made a trading profit. Within just a few years the club made an overall profit for the first time, and in 1997 it floated on the stock market, valued at the time at £25 million.

During her tenure at Birmingham the average gate rose from 6,000 to more than 30,000 and in 2009 it was sold for £82m. It was a rare beast in premiership football – a debt-free, profit-making football club.

Perhaps Brady’s success is down to her non-fanlike attitude to the game. Football is a business like any other to Brady, although with its own unique set of circumstances.

Business goals

“Football is what people think we do, it’s what we do on a Saturday, but underneath that we have a retail business, a corporate sales business, a hospitality business, a media business and so on,” says Brady. “It’s more similar to other businesses than people realise. The difference is that it doesn’t make anything, people are the business and that makes it very special,” she says.

The first few years of Brady’s working life did little to reveal the heady heights to which she would rise in business. After completing school she eschewed university, keen to get straight into the world of work. At 18 years old she joined LBC but moved fairly swiftly to advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi as a junior account executive. In 1988 she joined the fledgling Sport Newspapers Ltd, publisher of the Sunday Sport and Daily Sport tabloid papers, and quickly made her mark so that within a year she was a director.

This job also introduced her to David Sullivan, with whom her working life has been intricately linked ever since. Sullivan made his fortune in the world of adult entertainment before moving into the football business. On becoming a co-owner of Birmingham City in 1993 he took Brady with him. While her media roles have grown since she left Birmingham, the lure of another chance to work with Sullivan and get back into football was too strong; at the beginning of last year, when Sullivan took a controlling stake in West Ham, Brady accepted the role of vice-chairman at the club.

Making football pay

Understanding the market is crucial in football, says Brady. “Customer service is very important. A Birmingham City fan is not going to wake up and support West Ham and a West Ham supporter is not going to wake up and support Birmingham City. So you have an element of a captive customer but the trick as a football club is to turn those people who say they’re supporters into paying customers. It’s then about maximising the seats and leveraging the brand.”

There might have been a time when brand wasn’t mentioned in terms of football, but those days have long gone and marketing terminology of this sort is commonplace in the business world of sport. Even during Brady’s career she says football has changed a lot. “It’s very big business now. It’s a multi-billion pound industry that’s grown over the years. The main reason is because of the input of Sky television and what that does to promote the brand globally.”

Having turned around the fortunes at Birmingham City with a pragmatic business plan, Brady says a two-pronged approach is required for West Ham’s financial situation. “At West Ham the short-term goals are to stabilise the business, which is being done by putting more cash in, and long term it’s paying the banks back, generating revenue and continuing to promote the global brand,” she says.

Building relationships

But in these tumultuous economic times surely it’s a tough call to generate revenue. “What supporters really want is to feel part of the team they support and part of the infrastructure, part of the decision-making process and to feel important, and that’s what we do,” she says. “It’s always important during times of recession to cut costs and prepare for the future and look for new opportunities so you can diversify. That’s about thinking outside the box and ensuring you work in partnership with your customers because at times like this, price doesn’t matter as everyone’s price comes down; it’s about relationship building and about people trusting you and the work that you do.”

A man’s world?

Building brands, even in the precarious world of football, has become a central tenet of Brady’s approach and she appears to have adopted that same philosophy as an individual, ensuring that her profile is maintained and building her personal brand. As a no-nonsense, straight-talking, thick-skinned football exec she carved out a niche as a high-profile businesswoman succeeding in a male-dominated industry. High-profile women in business have often built a career in more obviously female-friendly environments, so those that do it in more masculine industries stand out from the crowd.

However, Brady queries the perception that football is male-dominated. “Football may appear to be very male-dominated but actually there are an awful lot of women who work in football. I’m a passionate believer in promoting women in business, and when I left Birmingham 75 per cent of the senior management team at director level were women. So it appears to be male-dominated but when you get behind the scenes it isn’t. And it’s a great business, it’s a people business which suits my skills.” she says.

You’re hired!

Brady’s career has always been followed by a flurry of media attention, which she seems more than happy to have courted. The impressive boardroom performances have gone hand-in-hand with TV show appearances, Hello! magazine photo spreads and book writing. So when it was announced last year that Margaret Mountford was leaving The Apprentice, there was a degree of inevitability that Brady should replace her as Lord Sugar’s female sidekick, despite her very different style.

Brady had already familiarised herself with the format – albeit on the other side of the table – when she featured in the Comic Relief version of the show in 2006 and led the women’s team to a resounding victory over the men. In many ways the show is perfect for Brady, combining her business and media acumen, so it is not surprising that she has been pleased to be part of it. “Alan Sugar is fantastic; the integrity, the professionalism, the amount of hard work that goes into making that show is truly amazing,” she says.

The key to success

While her Sugar sidekick role meant that she was restricted to observing and giving feedback to Lord Sugar on how the teams and contestants performed, it seems a shame that she wasn’t allowed to pass on some of her own insights and advice.

So what would be her tips for success, whether for Apprentice hopefuls or anyone involved in business? “Have a plan, have a strategy, work hard, cut costs, communicate your message and build your brand,” she says without hesitation.

And when it comes to her own personal qualities for success, she suggests they combine “a lot of hard work, enthusiasm, determination, being strategic, a good negotiator and a good communicator”.

Her management techniques have evolved from her open and direct style she says. “I set the strategy so everyone who works for me knows where we’re going and what’s expected of them. Everyone knows what they have to do to make sure the company is a success and then everyone knows what their reward is. And that creates a vibrant, positive environment and one that’s both creative and dedicated. I’m pretty good at delegation, and as you get older you get better at it, and that comes from trust, when you know the people you work with and that they can deliver,” she says.

But perhaps one of the most pertinent insights into Brady’s business view comes when she’s asked how she deals with her mistakes. “It’s always important to learn from your mistakes but it’s far more important to learn from other people’s successes.”

Like every good footballer, her metaphorical trophy cabinet is littered with business awards from Business Woman of the Year (2007), the Spirit of everywoman Award at the NatWest everywoman Awards 2007 to being recognised in 2010 as a Women in Business Leader in the UK by Downing Street and voted among Britain’s Most Influential Women by Good Housekeeping magazine. All testimony to her impact on the business world.

Where her combined business and media career takes her next remains to be seen, but judging by the first 20 years, it will be an interesting mix of roles and recognition, no matter what direction it takes.

Karren Brady: Timeline

1987- Begins her career at LBC before moving to Saatchi & Saatchi as junior account handler

1988- Joins Sport Newspapers Ltd. Becomes director within a year

1993- Appointed Managing Director of Birmingham City football club, which is in administration

1996- Birmingham City FC makes an overall profit for the first time in its modern history

2010- Appointed vice chairman of West Ham United. Replaces Margaret Mountford on The Apprentice

For more business advice and interviews, visit the RBS Business Sense website.

The NatWest Women in Business team is dedicated to helping female entrepreneurs around the UK. Find our more at www.natwest.com

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