Business interview: The Apprentice’s Karren Brady

KARREN Brady is a novelist, motivational speaker, newspaper columnist and football club executive, though she is arguably best known as Lord Sugar’s right-hand woman on The Apprentice, writes Martin Flanagan

Karren Brady in Lord Sugar's boardroom on The Apprentice. Picture: PA

The programme has made her one of Britain’s most recognisable businesswomen but aside from the celebrity status that inevitably accompanies such a high profile show, Brady is dedicated to helping the hundreds of wannabe entrepreneurs scattered around the country.

When we meet she is talking to the winners of the Nectar Small Business Awards in London. Brady was a judge and she appears at home mingling with the sort of aspirant young business people that shows such as The Apprentice try to encourage. .

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The gathering includes a landscape gardener, a confectionery entrepreneur and the creator of the world’s first plastic trombone, and Brady’s message is music to their ears as she offers them tips for growing their businesses. Among this year’s winners was Stirling-based business Labels4Kids which produces hard-wearing, waterproof labels for children’s clothes and other school items. It was set up by Ann-Maree Morrison who launched the business because she could not find suitable labels for her own children’s items.

Brady’s advice to the group ranges from having a clear business and action plan to targeting senior business people through a mixture of networking and research.

“I thought they were fantastic, diverse,” Brady says after telling the eager group that in business any recession is still trumped by “a gap in the market”.

She acknowledges later, however, that the business world will have to recognise and adapt to the consumer savviness and prudence engendered by Britain’s five-year downturn.

“People have learnt through this recession the value of money. There was previously an ‘I want something and I want it now’ sort of credit environment,” she says. “I think there may be something of a return to the idea of saving up for something you want.”

Brady began her business career at advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi but came to public prominence as the first lady of football. The daughter of an Irish businessman and an Italian mother, at just 23 she was hired in 1993 by glamour industry boss David Sullivan to be managing director of Birmingham City Football Club, staying in the role until 2009.

In February 1997 she launched the club on the London Stock Exchange and was the youngest managing director of a listed company in the UK. For the last three years she has been vice-chairman of West Ham United FC and is preparing the club’s move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016. Her joining the east London club coincided with her replacing Margaret Mountford on The Apprentice and she has become well-known for her puzzled frowns while monitoring the candidates.

Her multi-faceted career has not only allowed her to become a public face for women in business, it has also enabled her to amass a personal fortune estimated to be in excess of £80 million.

Asked about her reported longer-term political ambitions, she says: “I’m not prepared to discuss that.” She is more forthcoming on the period of introspection that followed her brain surgery for a cerebral aneurysm seven years ago.

“A little bit, yes. I understand how illness changes people. It made me think how much I really love my life and want to live as long as possible.”

That involves taking her foot a little bit off the pedal with two to three holidays a year with ex-footballer husband Paul Peschisolido and their two teenage children.

Her husband is the former Birmingham City player she sold twice when they were at the club. “We needed the money and he was an asset we had,” she laughs.

She admits it is a strain on the fabled work/life balance living in London during the week and returning to the family’s West Midlands home at weekends.

But she says the children are doing exams and don’t want to move to London, and Paul respects how much her career means to her

Brady’s television exposure on The Apprentice has undoubtedly raised her public profile and it has contributed to her becoming one of the business celebrities fronting the UK government’s pensions auto-enrolment initiative now adorning the sides of hundreds of buses.

Her diary is busy with business, television and sporting commitments. She has a number of non-executive posts that include retail magnate Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia group. She also takes in charitable work and was recently appointed the Stroke Association’s first Life After Stroke Awards Patron.

A word on her management style? “I want them [staff] to know what’s expected of them, because I like to know that myself. I respect my staff and I’m an encourager. I want people to be the best they can be for me and for themselves.”

On the subject of gender equality in the boardroom, Brady is clearly a female role model. She says there are many more these days than, say, ten or 20 years ago, name-checking Angela Ahrendts, the boss of the Burberry fashion chain, as how things have changed.

However, she still feels there is some way to go before the glass ceiling facing female executives is shattered. She says that short of creating a level boardroom playing field voluntarily “we need to think about quotas even if I’m not in favour of them”.

Her views on business have become sought after as a public speaker and contributor to government thinking and she holds some strong opinions on what succeeds and what fails. Fundamentally, though she reckons small businesses are the engine of Britain’s growing economic recovery and asserts that alleged sclerotic bank lending is largely irrelevant.

“Small businesses are the big hope. Running one is often a lonely experience but you cannot become a bigger business without having been small,” she says. “But even if all businesses need investment it does not just have to come from the banks.

“I would not invest in anyone’s business if they were not investing themselves. If they are not gambling their own money why gamble mine?

• Additional writing by Terry Murden

Karren Brady’s CV

Born: London, 1969

Education: Aldenham School, Elstree

Ambition while at school: To be independent in all aspects of my life

Car you drive: Range Rover

Kindle or book? Both

Favourite music: Bruno Mars

Can’t live without: Blackberry

Favourite holiday destination: Holidays are rare, so always good

What makes you angry: Rudeness and bullying

Best thing about your job: My staff