Karren Brady: ‘Women have brains and uteruses, and are able to use both’
Karren Brady … ‘I always laugh when I read about sexism cases.’
When it comes to self-control, the businesswoman Karren Brady clearly has a lot to teach us. Here’s one case in point. Four years ago, then aged 36, Brady experienced an allergic reaction and went for a health screening, including a full-body MRI scan. The tests uncovered, out of the blue, a cerebral aneurysm – a weakened artery in her brain that could have ruptured and killed her at any moment (a doctor expressed surprise that she had survived the births of her two children). The surgical options were risky, and there was the distinct possibility of suffering either a stroke, or death.
Was she terrified? Did she panic? “No,” she says. “I broke it down into five stages. One, finding out what I had. Two, finding out what treatment was available. Thirdly, choosing the treatment. Fourthly, having it. Fifthly, getting on with it.” She had a coil implanted to seal the aneurysm from its blood supply, spent 24 hours in intensive care, and was answering emails by the next day. One colleague sent a message asking, “‘Are you not answering, or are you dead?’, which I thought was a bit unfortunate,” she says mildly, tapping at her laptop. “Perhaps I do email too much, but I like to deal with things instantly.” She hits the return key.
Brady has recently become the vice-chairman of West Ham United FC, and I meet her in a private club in London, where she is promoting a mobile phone. (She has said that, of late, the majority of her earnings come from “my non-football business – speaking events, newspaper columns and books – which is currently valued at £82m”.) She is accompanied by two PR men and a hairdresser, and I find her in a blur of activity, hair being primped, laptop before her, phone to her right, diary to her left. She is at once extremely business-like and extremely feminine. The diary is a black Chanel number, as is her dress with its swooping neckline; her business card is a light salmon pink with embossed, curly gold letters, which are very pretty and very difficult to read.
Brady is just as hard to decipher. Arguably the country’s most prominent businesswoman, she will replace Margaret Mountford on The Apprentice later this year. She has been a fixture in the public eye since the age of 23, when she became managing director of Birmingham City FC and brought an immediate end to rumours that her appointment was a gimmick by dragging the club into profit – and later into the Premier League. At the same time, she has always seemed a conundrum. She’s an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in the workplace, yet went back to the office three days after having her first child. She seems relaxed, yet apparently once went without a holiday for 13 years. And then there is that unbelievable self-control.
I ask about the plans for West Ham, which her former Birmingham City colleagues David Sullivan and David Gold took over in January. The club is £110m in debt. Brady talks about “trimming down the staff who are in what I consider to be luxury positions, and controlling costs. In any normal business that work would take six months. It needs to take six weeks.” Does she mind being known as a “sacker” – the word Sullivan used to describe her, approvingly, in her early days at Birmingham? “I think what he actually meant was that I was able to make the tough decisions,” she says, “and that includes letting people go.” Has anyone ever cried when she has sacked them? “No,” she says blithely, “not that I remember.”
There will be plenty more sackings when she appears in The Apprentice – although the show’s main host, Alan Sugar, will be doing the honours. The image of Sugar is very brusque, I say. “Direct,” she corrects me, laughing. “I’ve known him for, gosh, 17 years, and we did a bit of business together when he was at Spurs. He always says that he got the better of me, and I always roll my eyes.”
Brady captained the women’s celebrity team on the first series of Comic Relief Does The Apprentice in 2007 and has also appeared on the main show, interviewing contestants in the final stages. She was devastated when she heard that Mountford was leaving, “but someone had to replace her, and Alan asked me, and Margaret gave me so many tips”. Specifically: don’t forget about your feet. Brady spent her first day in “beautiful Prada shoes, and I remember going home after 17 hours’ filming, laying in the bath, with my feet going boom boom boom.” Within days she …