Profile: Karren Brady

A YOUNG woman determined to make it in a man's world, driven to succeed long after her competitors have given up. It sounds like the kind of person destined to win the new spin-off series of the popular BBCTV show The Apprentice. In fact it's an accurate description of the woman who last week took over at Lord Sugar's right hand.

Karren Brady, best known as the former managing director of Birmingham City Football Club, is stepping into the role recently relinquished by the formidable Margaret Mountford. Last week, she appeared in the first episode of Junior Apprentice, the new spin-off series which puts a group of pushy, over-confident teenagers through their business paces. The 41-year-old businesswoman is perfectly qualified to judge pushy young tyros, because she was one herself.

Brady took over as boss of Birmingham City at the age of just 23 and was initially dismissed as a piece of totty in a man's world. Yet she made the club profitable, with a turnover in excess of 30 million, and took it into the Premiership. In the early days of her career, she recalls being ushered towards the ladies' lounge and the directors' wives' box instead of the boardroom. But in the years since, Brady has become an accepted part of the establishment, earning the unofficial title "First Lady of Football". Football manager Barry Fry once said it didn't take long for him to revise his first impression of Brady from "bimbo" to "one hard b*****d".

Since then, Brady has gone on to become the vice-president of West Ham United and carved out a career as a TV personality, columnist and writer. She estimates her wealth at 82m.

It was David Sullivan, publisher of the Sunday Sport who gave Brady the job of its sales and marketing manager when she was 19. She clearly impressed Sullivan: within a year she was the director. Three years later she persuaded him to buy Birmingham City and he gave her the job of running it. She turned up to chair her first board meeting in a pink puffa jacket. Today she dresses in slick suits and frocks and refers to Sullivan as her "mentor".

She has known Alan Sugar for years, but it was her stint captaining the women's team in 2007's Comic Relief Does the Apprentice that convinced the grizzled millionaire she was the right woman to fill Mountford's shoes. Brady led her team to victory, raising 775,000 for charity, compared to the paltry 286,000 raised by the men's team, led by Alastair Campbell.

Changing the personnel of the series is obviously a risk. Mountford and silky public relations executive Nick Hewer worked well together as the disapproving parents, lurking in the background while the programme's feckless wannabes bickered and screwed up the most basic business tasks, then reporting back to Sugar and grassing up their charges.

But Brady's arrival has already changed the dynamic. Brady just doesn't do matronly disapproval. Instead she comes over like a slightly more sexy "Supernanny," frighteningly competent but with the kind of bustling allure that gets men of a certain age hot under their starched collars.

Not that they should get any ideas. Brady is well able to put middle-aged boors in their place. When she took over Birmingham City a tabloid reporter at her first press conference asked her for her vital statistics. When one of her players told her that he could "see (her] tits in that shirt" she responded "don't worry, when I sell you to Crewe you won't be able to see them from there". His transfer went through shortly after.

Selling the contestants in The Apprentice, sadly, isn't an option, even if anyone could be persuaded to buy them. But Brady already shows a healthy scepticism towards the kind of bumptious boasting that is the programme's stock in trade. "It's always funny when you sit at home and they say 'I'm the best salesman in the world!' and you think, 'How do they know? Why not the universe?'"

Brady was born in Edmonton, North London, where her Rolls-Royce-driving father ran a successful printing firm. Her Italian mother stayed at home and taught her to cook. Brady went to a convent boarding school until she was 16 and was then sent to what was formerly an all-boys boarding school.

In one form or another she has been in men's institutions ever since. She joined Saatchi & Saatchi's graduate trainee scheme at 18, despite not being a graduate. She then sold ads for London Broadcasting Company, famously waiting outside Sport Newspapers chairman Sullivan's house for five hours to try to sell him an ad. He refused but was soon spending 2m on radio ads with Brady. Not long after, he offered her a job in the testosterone-filled world of Sport Newspapers. Next came football. Brady insists she never had a game plan. She said, "I've always said that if you look after this job, the next one comes along automatically."

Despite a demanding career, Brady has a home life too. She started dating then Birmingham City footballer Paul Peschisolido a year after joining the club and has been married to him since 1995. The couple have two children, Sophia, 14, and Paolo, 11. But though she has managed to combine family and business success she hasn't made many concessions to the work-life-balance: she was back in the office three days after her first child's birth.

That's not to say she hasn't experienced some grounding moments.

In 2006, a scan revealed a weakened artery in her brain. She had a coil implanted in her skull and was back at work the following month.

And in April 2008, she was arrested, alongside Sullivan, and questioned as part of an investigation into corruption in sport. No further action was taken but Brady was left shaken, describing her arrest as "upsetting, shocking and unnecessary". She left Birmingham City months later after the club was taken over.

Those are all words likely to be used by the unsuccessful candidates in The Apprentice, a show in which hyperbolic self-regard goes hand in hand with monstrous self pity. One thing is for sure: anyone expecting Mountford's successor to be a soft touch will be disappointed.

Recently, reflecting on her own big break, aged 23, she said: "When you are 23 you have much thicker skin." The youngsters whom she will be judging will need hides like rhinos when the formidable Brady gets into her stride.

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Brady refused a wheelchair and insisted on walking to the operating room for a 5 hour operation to repair a brain aneurysm. During her 24 hours in intensive care she was caught checking her work e-mails.

&#149 She was responsible for Birmingham City FC's flotation in 1997, becoming the youngest managing director of a UK plc.

&#149 On her attitude to work: "I embrace change. Change is important for business… If you don't agree with the way things are happening, you always have an option. We all have options. It's normally by the exit door."

&#149 A framed picture of a golden eagle in her office reads: "Leaders are like eagles. They don't flock. You find them one at a time."

&#149 On selling her footballer husband when he was a player for Birmingham City FC: "It didn't affect our relationship. Every time we got a little bit short of cash, he was always one of the assets that got sold off."

&#149 Brady had no ambition growing up, but always demonstrated an entrepreneurial streak, setting up car washes with her brother when she was six and advertising manicures using posters in her bedroom window.