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."
Three years after she arrived at the club, it posted its first profit and finally won a place in the Premiership in 2002. She does admit that she has worked incredibly hard to get where she is. "There are things I regret now," she says. "I had my first baby on a Friday and was back at work by the Monday."
At the time she didn't feel she could take any more maternity leave. "I was there to prove myself. Everyone I worked with was male. They couldn't conceive of me not being available because I had a baby.
"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."
She went to see the doctor and soon after was in hospital having a scan. "I was told there were two ways of treating me. One was to scalp me, essentially, and deal with the aneurysm by clipping it. The other was to pass a coil up through my body and implant it in my brain to stop any bleeding. The first has a high success rate, but I'd have been off work for six months. The second is less intrusive but not 100pc [successful]."
Brady says she was in such shock at the news she couldn't make a decision. "I called my dad and he said, 'Well, if the clip is so brilliant, why did anyone invent the coil?' I am very close to my dad so I listened to him, but I still wasn't sure." In the end, she told the doctors to get together and argue the toss. "I told them I wasn't the expert -- they were. I told them to run it like a business meeting -- the best argument wins -- and they ended up agreeing I should go for the coil."
The operation was successful and, once again, Brady went straight back to work. "When I came out of hospital I really understood why people change their lives. The doctors were amazed I'd managed to have children, as the pressure of childbirth could have burst the aneurysm and killed me.
"When you go through an experience that could, essentially, lead to death you do reappraise everything. I really get why some people divorce or give up working to climb the Himalayas."
But she didn't give up work or get divorced. "No," she says smiling. "I realised I was happy with my life. I love my work, my children, my husband. I realised when I was ill that I had to survive. I couldn't bear the thought of some other woman bringing up my children and not having the strong values I have. I am firm with my kids. They have to be polite and they are not allowed to play on computers in the week, that sort of thing."
Wouldn't her husband keep to those values? "No!" she says. "He's the one that wants to be on the PlayStation. He winds them up. He says, 'I'm going on the PlayStation now', when I've told them they can't go on it. He's my third child."
They seem to have a rock-solid marriage, though. She and Peschisolido got together when he came over from Canada to play for Birmingham and the two of them bonded through loneliness. "All his friends were in Canada and mine were in London. We spent time together because we had no one else to be with." Gossip about the pair was rife. "But why?" she says. "He was single. I was single. What was the big deal?" They married in 1995 and have been together ever since.
"He is very supportive," she says. "When I was ill he said, 'I'd rather it was me than you', and I thought, 'Me too!' Anyway, we don't do divorce in my family. My father and my mother have been together for ages. We are a strong unit. I speak to them almost daily."
She grew up in some style in Edmonton, Middlesex. Her father, Terry, was a printer and property developer; her mother, Rita, a glamorous Italian stay-at-home mother. "She had a different evening dress for every Saturday night," says Brady. "My friends holidayed in Britain. We went to Barbados." Her father instilled in her the importance of hard work, so when she came out of hospital it never really occurred to her to stop working.
"I love it. It genuinely makes me happy. I think I have found a balance now I am older. When I work, I work. When I am at home I'm mum. The key is not to let those two things overlap." She has no time for herself, though. "You can't have everything,' she says. "I don't do facials and massages. I was once asked to go to the Oscars but I didn't have the time."
This might all change though as she is, quite frankly, desperate to get out of football. "I was going to leave last year when it looked as if the club might be sold [to the Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung]. At that point I was hoping to go into retail or media. I love turning big-name companies around and I could do with a new challenge." But the deal fell through and now the club is relegated. "I can't leave now," she says. "It's not the right time. I can't just walk away."
But right now her children are about to burst through the door and she has their dinner to make. I ask her, just before I leave, if she's superhuman. "Oh, no," she says. "I'm just like anyone else. I worry about my weight, hair, clothes. But at the end of the day I remain clear, focused, calm. How long for, though, I have no idea. It might all fall down around my feet."
Watching her make dinner while talking on her mobile phone, patting the dog and paying the gardener, I doubt it somehow.
The Apprentice: The Final Five is on BBC One tonight at 10.20pm.