Monday 22 December 2014

A Dame of two halves

Businesswomen don't come much tougher than Karren Brady, the director of Birmingham City FC. She tells Lucy Cavendish about her recent arrest, her brush with death and her latest role on The Apprentice

It's been a long day for Karren Brady. For a start, she's facing relegation. In fact, three days after we meet, Birmingham City football club, of which she is the managing director, was relegated from England's Premier League. On top of that, her Canadian husband, footballer Paul Peschisolido who played for Birmingham for two seasons -- Brady sold him twice to raise funds for the club -- is back in Vancouver setting up a football academy. Her children, Sophia, 12, and Paolo, nine, are due home from school. "I'm a busy woman," she says. "I am a working mother in the true sense of the word. I work and I look after my children."

But it's more than that. In April, 39-year-old Brady was arrested and, along with her boss, David Sullivan, the owner of Birmingham City FC and proprietor of the UK's Daily Sport and Sunday Sport, was questioned as part of a long-running investigation into corruption in football.

"I can't say much about it," says Brady. "All I'll say is that I haven't been charged with anything. I am co-operating with the police as fully as I am able to."

She tells me that the police were questioning payments from one particular agent to a player between 2002 and 2003. "The top and bottom of it is that we answered questions. I have always been happy to do that, so I don't know why we were arrested. It was very upsetting, shocking and unnecessary. In fact, it left me feeling really angry, because it wasn't as if I wasn't going to help."

Brady seems pretty above board to me. She's quiet and considered, but can obviously be forceful when she wants to be. She has won several businesswoman-of-the-year awards. She sits on the boards of Mothercare, Sport England, Kerrang! BBC Radio 4 and Channel 4. In March, she was invited to the prestigious women-only lunch for Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, hosted by Sarah Brown. Perhaps even more importantly at this precise moment, she is involved in the nation's favourite reality TV show, The Apprentice.

"I can't say I know who the winner is," she says, raising her eyebrows, "but I like Claire. I was very impressed by her."

After her own impressive stint in the 2007 Comic Relief celebrity version of The Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar asked her if she'd like to get more involved. She was brought in for this series to help whittle down the last five contenders. She interviewed them all: Alex, Lee, Claire, Lucinda and Helene, and then gave Sir Alan her impressions.

"I knew nothing about them. I only had their CVs," she says. She reveals that Helene had a very unhappy childhood, Lucinda truly is quirky and nonconformist, Lee is a cheeky chappie and Alex was upset because he felt everyone treated him as a pretty boy. "What's wrong with being good-looking?" she says. "I told him he should use it and stop feeling embarrassed."

It's something Brady has had to deal with all her life. When she first appeared on the football scene in 1993, as the managing director of Birmingham FC, she was only 23. She was the youngest managing director of a top-flight club and the only woman who'd ever got to such a position. Pretty, blonde, buxom and single, she garnered a lot of attention. She had originally caught David Sullivan's eye a few years previously when she was selling radio airtime for the early-morning Asian Hour show on LBC radio.

She told him that if he bought advertising time and it didn't up his sales, she'd give him his money back. He knew a good deal when he heard one, bought the slot and saw his sales miraculously increased.

"That's true!" she says, laughing. "I outsold everyone else put together." She went to work for Sullivan and suggested he buy Birmingham FC. "David was looking to move into horseracing or football. I don't get horses, so I thought football was the way to go."

So Sullivan bought the club and then sent his trusty deputy to run it. "I cannot tell you what a state it was in," she says. "The ground was virtually condemned. The stands were decrepit, the team was all over the place, the fans were demoralised." They were also in a state of shock when a girl appeared in their midst. "I don't know what the fuss was all about," she says. "I wasn't training the team. I was there to get the club into shape."

But while she went about turning the club around by making it more family-friendly, introducing a family stand, appointing a manager and generally working 24/7 to make a profit, she had to put up with endless sexist comments.

"People would talk about my boobs and my clothes. I'd always get led to the box where the directors' wives sit and not the directors." She shrugs. "I have a thick skin. You can't survive in this game otherwise."

"I wish now that I'd been firm. I missed out on that early babyhood because I didn't understand that I could take time off. Would three months have really affected anything at all?"

Brady says she has been dwelling on the meaning of life recently, mainly because in 2006 she was diagnosed as having a cerebral aneurysm (a bulge in an artery in the brain) and was so close to death it made her breathless with panic.

"I just blew up one day. I looked as if I'd had an allergic reaction to something, but I've never been allergic to anything."

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