Minding her own business: Karren Brady

Regarded as one of the first to shatter the glass ceiling for women in UK business, it seems immediately appropriate to ask the West Ham United Vice Chairman if that cracked pane has mended itself some 19 years after she gave women in business a new belief.

“Honestly, I feel there’s very little sexism across the business sector these days,” she says, speaking exclusively to Business Matters. “I certainly don’t come across it myself, and I hear precious few examples of it happening to other women.

“Personally, if I’m dealing with a male counterpart, I don’t feel like there’s any difference in exchange or relationship because I’m a woman and he’s a man. I fully believe those darks days are over. There might be remnants that exist, but they’re in nothing more than comic stereotypes – it’s such an archaic notion.”

That’s in somewhat stark contrast to her pioneering days at Birmingham City FC, as the first female Managing Director of a professional football club, back in 1993. The then 23-year-old faced a barrage of less than complementary comments after assuming the role offered to her by publisher David Sullivan who had, not long before, bought into the football club.

Sullivan maintained the deal would generate publicity with a young, female director at the helm. And he wasn’t wrong. “I’ll admit, coming into Birmingham, it was a completely different story than it is today,” she continues. “The glass ceiling was very much enforced at that point and I faced a number of pretty substantial obstacles – and it was just because I was a woman. I’m not going to elaborate on certain confrontations because none were keenly memorable or left a lasting impression, but there was that attitude that I wasn’t as good at the job, simply because of my gender.

“Happily though, there’s been a slow but definite transitional period over the years. It’s a completely different era now.”

Prior to her position at Birmingham, Brady, a product of an Anglo-Italian upbringing in London’s Edmonton, began her career aged 18 at Saatchi and Saatchi. Soon afterwards, she moving onto Sport Newspapers Ltd in 1988, via a short stint at LBC, and became Director within a year. During her reign at Birmingham, she raised the club from administration and, within her first 12 months at the helm, brought about a financial trading profit.

A year later, Brady floated the Blues on the stock market, making herself the youngest Managing Director of a PLC in the UK.

“I probably count that as my greatest personal decision as well my biggest risk, but it made a significant change to my career. It could have been a bad move but it ultimately succeeded, bolstered regrowth within the company and raising my own profile to a level I could have only dreamed of a few short years before. I’m not going to dress it down, it was incredibly important for me and important for my business. It was a big move, and it led to very good things.”

Currently Vice Chairman at West Ham United – after helping negotiate the sale of Birmingham for £82million – Brady also sits on the boards of Mothercare and Arcadia. It’s interesting then to gauge her perception of the difference between a management role in a Premier League club compared to that in a company that doesn’t pander to the slightly warped business rules of the sporting world.

“Football is what we do on a Saturday,” she says. “But like any other business we have marketing, we have sales, we have retail, we have a media, and an operations arm. We have a development business and an online business; those are all the things that a football club builds on its foundations in order to drive the revenue that means it can compete on a Saturday, so it’s a big operation. Yes, there are rules in football that buck typical business mechanics and processes, but there are 790 full- and part-time staff at West Ham, working incredibly hard to deliver success for the football club, so no-one can tell us this isn’t an important thing.

“People will disagree, but between this and a ‘normal’ company, I don’t see a massive difference. I sit on the boards of Mothercare and Arcadia and I’ve done work with Channel 4 and various others, and most companies are very similar in their structure. Where a football club differs to virtually any other business, is that we don’t manufacture anything – we don’t produce anything really. All of our assets are people. It’s getting the best out of people, bringing together footballers with the supporters, mixing that with finance, commerce and sponsorship. That’s all a part of running a football club.”

Brady presently sits to the right of Lord Sugar on BBC’s The Apprentice and the pair have been close, personal associates for many years. However, given the Amstrad boss’s close ties with Tottenham Hotspur – he’s a former chairman of the White Hart Lane outfit – does this provoke the opportunity for some corporate squabbling given the clubs’ current legal toils over the use of the Olympic Stadium?

“The only time there’s a bone of contention is when the two clubs play one other,” she laughs. “We’ll always be ribbing the other whatever happens. I’ll get a text from him on match day; he’ll have some smart comment to make. It’s a shame then that West Ham have often come out on top against Tottenham over the past few years, but every man has his day, and all that.”

And every woman too, in Karren’s case…

So with Business Matters celebrating 25 years in print, what advice would the 42-year-old give to companies hoping to expand during these lazily clichéd ‘tough times’?

“I think it’s really important to have a long-term vision for your business, as well as short-term goal,” she says. “You have to set your sights on what makes you unique. You have to be able to identify what the company is, what the ethos is, and then communicate that through your staff and your customers. You need to ensure you’re always showcasing your skills, you’re always telling others what you do, and you’re always considered an expert in your field. Much of that comes through having a good company with solid integrity.

“Work hard, learn new ideas and spend time with your staff so you always know what’s happening in your business. And a really good manager must ensure he finds out what’s wrong with his business before his competitors do; so have the insight and foresight to see problems and issues that crop up in your sector, and know what your coping mechanism will be. I can honestly say these are the foundation rules I have always lived by.”

Rules that clearly have served the lady well…

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