| 12.2°C Belfast

Sweet role for the pick of the business bunch

Karren Brady will be the eyes and ears of Lord Sugar in the new series of reality TV show The Apprentice — but before the first lady of football fulfils that vital function, she will address the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards at the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast tomorrow night.

Ms Brady became the youngest managing director of a UK plc after taking the reins at Birmingham City aged just 23. In her 16 years at the helm she took the club into profit, leading to its £25m stock market flotation in 1997. She left when it was sold last year, and took up the post of |vice-chair of West Ham.

But Ms Brady isn’t consumed with the ‘youngest managing director’ record she made at Birmingham City, perhaps because she’s too busy getting on with the present and because her other many interests — including extra-curricular roles as a newspaper columnist and non-executive directorships of Mothercare and Sport England — don’t allow much time for dwelling on past glories.

“It’s not really a record as such but a statement of fact. It’s not something I particularly think about every day,” she said.

As for her new role at West Ham, it is a case of so far so good.

“It’s probably how I expected it, but when you take on any business with £110m worth of debt you have a challenge. But I think some of the problems are the solutions,” she said.

“When there is no control, no strategy, no direction, that’s when the problems exist, but when you start to put in control, direction and strategy, that’s when things start to improve.”

Ms Brady, who is married to Burton Albion manager and ex-Birmingham City player Paul Peschisolido, has come to West Ham during a troubled time for some clubs. Portsmouth went into administration this month and there is growing discontent among supporters of Manchester United and Liverpool about the size of their debts.

“I don’t think Portsmouth’s problems are based on recession but they are based on too much debt and buying in debt to pay for debt, which is a vicious circle, and very expensive money. It’s a layering problem, where it sold its future to gain its present,” Ms Brady said.

Her working life has been characterised by hard graft. Instead of going to university, she got her first proper job at 18 in |advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi.

“Well, it certainly worked for me but I’m not saying that it works for everybody. It was something I wanted to do. I had been in boarding school since I was 13 and I just wanted to go into work.”

BBC viewers will see Ms Brady in her role as Lord Sugar’s assistant in The Apprentice after the election in May. The show’s transmission was delayed because of Lord Sugar’s appointment as a government business adviser last year.

Ms Brady said she has “really enjoyed” working on the show. “It’s great to work with such professional people and it’s such a wonderful show. The amount of drive that goes into it, that’s the reason it’s so well received. It’s an important show in business because you have to remember that someone gets a very highly paid job out of it.”

As for the formidable Amstrad founder Lord Sugar, formerly known as Sir Alan, “obviously everybody respects him and he commands that respect every time he walks into any room”.

She is comfortable with being viewed as a role model. “One of the things I feel passionate about is encouraging women into business. When I left Birmingham City, 75% of the senior management team were women. I very much believe that having a mixed workforce is important.”

Her rise to the top in football management differs widely from the path to the top of football which some women aspire to —marrying a footballer. “I think we just live in much more showbizzy times and people think it’s very glamourous to be married to a footballer. Of course it can be but the business is far more important and showbizzy than being married to a footballer. And I speak as someone who’s married to one.”

While we have technically emerged from recession, she feels there are still tough times ahead for business. “I think that people haven’t really felt the recession as much as you think because most people have jobs and mortgage repayments are down. But with a general election coming up companies are under pressure to deliver and that’s giving people more fear. I think things will get worse before they get better.”

As for any remaining ambitions: “I’d like to sort West Ham out and I take every day as it comes. My ambition is to ensure that there’s never anything else I’d rather be doing. Keep it interesting.”

Karren Brady will be keynote speaker at |the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, in the Ramada Hotel, Belfast tomorrow night