Karren Brady: Grounds for optimism

Karren Brady talks to Brian Viner about why West Ham will not give up on the Olympic Stadium, her battle to overcome sexism and how brain surgery made her reassess her life

West Ham United remain committed to the idea of moving to the Olympic Stadium, contrary to reports last week that the club's executives are "going cool" on the prospect. "I wouldn't be dragging my body to all the meetings, or reading through a 900-page document every night, if we weren't still committed," says Karren Brady, sitting behind her desk at Upton Park, in front of an evocative portrait of the late Bobby Moore.

Nonetheless, West Ham's vice-chairman considers "the biggest disappointment" of her life to be the way the bid process has unfolded. When pressed on the greatest regrets of her 42 years, she denies that she has any. "But my biggest disappointment is that I spent two years of my life getting to be preferred bidder for the Olympic Stadium. It was their competition, their rules, and we abided by that, and then not being the preferred bidder, and having to go through another process, is like someone giving you the keys and then changing the locks. We should now be planning a future there, as opposed to having to go back and review everything."

The Olympic Park Legacy Committee abandoned the deal to sell the £486m arena to West Ham last October, after legal challenges by Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient were compounded by an anonymous phone call to the European Commission, complaining that Newham Council's partial funding of the West Ham bid amounted to improper state aid. I ask Brady if she knows who made that phone call? "I can narrow it down to one or two," she says, sweetly.

Whatever, the stadium will now remain in public ownership after the Olympics, to be rented out from 2014 to the successful bidder. And, despite her acute sense of disappointment, Brady insists that the claret-and-blue hat is still very much in the ring.

"We do genuinely believe that we could make the stadium a success, both in terms of our physical presence, and encouraging football supporters to become involved in other sports," she says. "We passionately believe that it was built for athletics, and should have an athletics legacy. But obviously, the deal has to be right for us in terms of giving up here. We already have a stadium, we could have 48,000 seats if we redevelop parts of it, there's a hotel, a football atmosphere..."

So, if she were a betting woman, would she back the Hammers to leave or stay put? I do not expect such a pragmatist to indulge me by playing hypotheticals, and nor does she. "It's too big and too serious a conversation to say 'if I were betting'," she says. "And I don't want to negotiate in public. This is a serious process to make sure everything is right. We're not going there for one match, it's 99 years. But our commitment to make the stadium work is still there. Bids are due in by 23 March, and we've done that."

Brady pours herself a glass of water and asks her secretary to move back her next appointment. She was over an hour late for our lunchtime meeting because her previous meeting, in central London, over-ran. This is her world, of appointments backing up all afternoon and into the evening, which might be an eye-opener for the young person chosen to spend a day shadowing her as part of a new npower-sponsored campaign called What's Your Goal?

Brady is one of 11 mentors prepared to share a working day – others include Robbie Savage and Reading chairman Sir John Madejski – and there are also more than 300 placements for schoolchildren available across 72 clubs, their aim to promote football as a career option for youngsters whose talents don't necessarily lie in kicking a ball. "Most people think football is 11 men representing a team," she says. "That's still the most important thing we do, but football is also retail, finance, marketing, sales, ticketing, sponsorship, hospitality, catering..."

She hopes that as many girls as boys will take up the placements, and insists that great strides have been made since she turned heads, and camera lenses, by becoming managing director of Birmingham City, aged 23. The sexism stories are legion: of her being refused access to other clubs' boardrooms, and even of one of Birmingham's own players telling her, on her first day, that he could "see her tits" through the top she was wearing. "Don't worry, you won't be able to see them when I sell you to Crewe," was her oft-quoted response, but is it apocryphal?

"No, it's true," she says. She did sell him, too. Where is he now? "I have no idea," she says, glacially, then recalls the last time she encountered boardroom sexism, although it wasn't directed at her. "Delia [Smith's Norwich City] had just been promoted to the Premier League, and there are committees for this and that, so at a Premier League lunch Delia said: 'I'd like to go on one of the committees'. And Doug Ellis said: 'We'll have to set up a catering committee.' If looks could kill, he'd be dead. But that's changed. What you have now are serious business people buying football clubs as both an investment and part of a portfolio, and you'll find women putting those deals together, running the football clubs, running the holding company that's funding the purchase of the football clubs... the business of football is not sexist any more."

All the same, she understands why she seemed such a novelty at Birmingham all those years ago. "Of course, I was a woman in a man's world, which is why I was always depicted as busty, with thigh-length boots and a whip. You know, when you say you've just met a really ambitious man you think of someone interesting, someone going places. But when you say you've met an ambitious woman, you think 'I bet she's a right bitch, ruthless, prepared to step over anybody...'

"For years that was the perception of me, that I went round sacking people in my shoulder pads. In the meantime, I was carving out a business that sold for £82m, that was hugely profitable, had no debt, yet those things in some regard were not as interesting as the whip! But it didn't bother me, in fact I used it as a platform to do other things, to sit on other people's boards, to champion things I felt passionate about, to join The Apprentice, a show I love."

On which subject, is it true that when her Apprentice co-star Alan Sugar owned Tottenham, he nutmegged her in a business deal, as he claims? She smiles. "I don't think we ever did a deal, if the truth be known."

Whether they did or not, it's not difficult to see why the tailor's son from Hackney and the printer's daughter from Edmonton get on so well. "I don't believe in financial fair play," she says dismissively, of Uefa's attempts to restore some sanity to football's ledgers. "I don't believe in restraint of trade. I do believe in competition and the free market. If you've made money and want to invest it in a business, you should be allowed to. The investment should probably not be in terms of a loan. If you've borrowed from the bank to loan it to a football club then there's a chain that can cause a catastrophic effect, but if you want to dump £50m into a football club, to go and make Torquay the best club in the region, you should not be prevented from doing that."

Doesn't she think the game is out of touch with the real world, though, even the real world of sport, when some footballers are paid £250,000 a week? "I don't. The truth is, if you're stupid enough to pay that to someone who would be happy with 10 grand, then you're a bad business person. But if a footballer has a choice between Manchester City and Manchester United, and one is prepared to pay £250,000, and the other has to match it, that's market forces."

Yet market forces can implode. And trading in the transfer window just closed, even though West Ham were among the biggest spenders in the Championship, was notably restrained. Brady, however, sees no evidence that football is over-extending itself in these difficult economic times.

"The Premier League is one of the best exports we have, watched by more people across the world than any other sport. As you get further down the chain it gets more difficult, but the football industry is a healthy one. People abroad can't believe that we have 92 league clubs, and very rarely do we see a football club go out of business. Darlington was saved at the last minute. There is always someone locally with that affection."

Or multi-millionaires with strong affiliations, as in the case of David Gold and David Sullivan, who would not have taken on the financial headache that was West Ham, and installed Brady at the helm, had they not been boyhood fans. "We have a whole bag of historic debt," says Brady, and it is true that the name Tevez shatters the serenity of the West Ham boardroom as much as it does Manchester City's, for millions are still owed to Sheffield United over the third-party ownership dispute concerning the wretched Argentinian. "But we made a trading profit of nearly £7m last year," she continues, "which just goes to show that with the right control, the right strategy, the right energy, football clubs can make money."

Saturday's stirring win against Millwall eased the pain of last Tuesday's heavy defeat at Ipswich, and with the Hammers again looking like promotion favourites, Brady describes as "huge" the need to re-establish the club in the Premier League. "A few weekends ago we had the second highest attendance across all four divisions," she says. "This is a great club, with great expectations."

Clearly, her commitment to the day job has not wavered since a cerebral aneurysm was discovered during a routine MRI scan in 2006, though she understands why such a reminder of mortality tempts people to change direction. "It makes you rethink your priorities. I can see why some people wake up and think, 'You know what, I'm going to get a divorce, or go round the world, or change my job'. But I woke up and realised that I really love my life and want to live it as long as possible."

All the same, she concedes that she has softened since the brain surgery. And admits that in juggling professional and domestic duties – she and her husband, the Burton Albion manager Paul Peschisolido (above), have two children, aged 15 and 13 – she sometimes drops the balls. "What keeps me awake at night is not how to make ends meet in business, but in my time. I try to spend three nights a week in London and the rest at home in the Midlands, but when my son phones and says 'What day is it you're coming home, mum?' I know that's the day I need to go."

Karren Brady is one of 11 mentors working with npower for What's Your Goal? 2012. To apply for the chance to kickstart your career in football visit www.npower.com/whatsyourgoal

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