Karren Brady interview: The first lady of football’s big goal: help for small firms

The West Ham vice-chairman talks to Margareta Pagano as she prepares for a £150m new stadium and tackles George Osborne

Karren Brady has such a ghastly cold she slept for nearly 24 hours, drinking a bottle of cough mixture through the night to help fight the lurgy. The potion didn’t work, yet this first lady of football is such a pro that she’s in her West Ham United office first thing.

She has much to do – meetings with contractors to negotiate the tenders for the £150m conversion of the Olympic Stadium into the Hammers’ new home, which includes remodelling the roof to cover the seats, making it retractable so that the running track can stay in place, reducing the seats to 54,000 from 80,000, building new kiosks and lavatories for the fans, and masses more.

Then there’s this interview about her job as the Government’s small business ambassador and the latest awards she is judging, the Nectar Business Small Business Awards, and preparing for this week’s filming for a new Apprentice series with Lord Sugar. And that’s the half of it.

How does she do it? “I live day by day. There’s no other way,” she says, coughing, laughing and apologising in equal measure. “Otherwise I would go mad.” However lousy she feels, the vice-chairman of West Ham is as fearless as the first time we met. That’s when she was campaigning to persuade the world that letting West Ham have the Olympic Stadium once the 2012 Games were over was a no-brainer; that all other options were bonkers.

Well, she was right and got her way. I suspect she wears people down.  When the work is done – the finance in place, the contractors chosen and the work delivered on time – West Ham will move into the Queen Elizabeth Park Stadium, the country’s fourth biggest football stadium, in August 2016. In return, London gets 700 more jobs and two parts of the East End gentrified: Stratford, and the Hammers old ground at Upton Park, which is being redeveloped.

So it won’t surprise you to hear that this firecracker has another campaign: telling the Chancellor, George Osborne, (or “George” as she calls him) what he and his colleagues can do to make life easier for Britain’s 4.8 million army of small and medium-sized business owners.

“Right now, I’m still in listening mode, criss-crossing the country and asking small business owners what are their biggest concerns. Running your own business can be the loneliest job in the world. You are the MD, answer the phone and make tea, handle the invoices and have to make payments on time. It’s the most rewarding job on Earth but tough too.”

The same practical issues keep cropping up, she says. “Late payments by bigger suppliers is a big problem and maybe we need legislation. There’s also too much bureaucracy around the Government’s attempt to give 25 per cent of its procurement to small businesses. Then there’s the cost of childcare – which should be tax deductible – and access to finance and red tape.”

There’s also a serious lack of trust in big business, and government, which is denting morale: “Our supermarkets sell us horsemeat as beef, our politicians fiddle their expenses, and our bankers risk money that isn’t theirs. So it’s not surprising the public don’t trust anyone or anything.”

It’s also no wonder that being an entrepreneur has overtaken being a celebrity footballer among the young, she says, quoting a Nectar survey showing that 80 per cent of those between 16 and 30 want to start their own businesses while 51 per cent of them say they will have done so within five years. “Flexibility is what they want, but also freedom in their lives,” she says.

Which is why it’s so vital that the Government does more to help them. “If each small business employed one more person then we would have no unemployment. Isn’t that amazing? The world is divided into three types of people in business: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. We need more of the former.”

As you would also expect of someone who ran a football club and became a millionaire in her twenties, Ms Brady has advice for would-be small business owners: forget business plans. “Anyone wanting to start their own business should draw up an action plan that sets out when you’ll make your first sale or take your first booking, when you get paid – the really important things.”

Now is a great time to start too. “Around 400,000 new companies have been formed in the last three years; 27,000 new business mentors are available for small businesses, the Government’s start-up loans system is doing a great job, the new Business Bank has millions of pounds to lend, 360,000 businesses have received rate relief and 1.5 million new apprenticeships have been created.”

The numbers trip off her tongue so fast you wonder if she’s wearing an earpiece with a line from Central Office; she certainly has a direct one. After coming out as a Tory supporter – she introduced “George” for his main speech at last year’s party conference – the half-Irish, half-Italian mother of two from Edmonton has been offered six safe parliamentary seats. Some admirers whisper that she would make a great leader.

So will or won’t Ms Brady be persuaded? “Oh no, I’m too busy delivering the stadium,” she says, with another big laugh. You can’t blame her either: football is far more thrilling than politics right now, whether it’s the atavistic sacking of David Moyes at Manchester United or Jose Mourinho’s scheming to win the Champions League.

While Ms Brady is known as a sacker, she reckons Moyes was badly treated: “ No one deserves to be sacked like that. It’s so hard to change the DNA of a club and following Ferguson was always going to be hard.”

If she doesn’t fancy the Commons, there may be a peerage to come, or Boris Johnson’s job as Mayor of London coming up in 2016; a knock-about contest much more like the beautiful game she’s used to playing. Whatever she does next, Mr Osborne can expect an action plan when her report lands on his desk in the autumn.

Karren Brady is lead judge of the Nectar Business Small Business Awards 2014 which are open to all UK SMEs, who can enter until 25 May: www.nectar-business.com/SBA2014

From Elstree to East End: her life and times

Karren Brady CBE

Born:  4 April 1969.

Education: Aldenham School, Elstree.

Current position: Vice-chairman of West Ham United FC.

Career: Trainee at Saatchi & Saatchi, advertising account executive at London Broadcasting Company, director of David Sullivan’s Sport Newspapers, then managing director of Birmingham City FC, selling the club for £82m.

Other interests: She is a non-executive director of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia and Simon Cowell’s Syco.

Married to football manager Paul Peschisolido; two  children, Sophia and Paolo.

Drives: Range Rover.

Favourite book: Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.

Favourite film: “Pretty Woman”.

Hobbies: Watching son Paulo play rugby.

Favourite holiday: Beach and relaxation.

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