Karren Brady: charming yet ruthless First Lady of Football

Karren Brady became managing director of Birmingham City FC at the age of 23. Within 12 months, she had got the ramshackle club into profit.

Margaret Mountford was renowned on The Apprentice for her ability to crush a contestant's chances with a roll of her cool blue eyes, observes The Times. Her replacement, Karren Brady, is made of similar stuff. "I can see your tits in that shirt," a player once leered at her. "Don't worry," replied the First Lady of Football. "When I sell you to Crewe, you won't be able to see them from there." Sure enough, she sold him.

At just 23, Brady was no more than an apprentice herself when she was made managing director of Birmingham City FC by the porn barons (David Sullivan and brothers David and Ralph Gold) who bought the club out of administration in 1993. "I used to add two more years to my age, because I thought I had to be at least 25 for people to take me seriously. As though two years made any difference!"

Her appointment was widely derided as a cynical publicity stunt, says the Daily Mail."Who was this stupid bimbo" who "didn't know anything about football and hadn't even been to Birmingham before"? The tone was set at her first press conference, where she was asked about her vital statistics.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Yet, from the start, Brady was clearly in command, says The Observer. Radiating "perfectly pitched self-confidence", she got the ramshackle club into profit within 12 months "the first time Birmingham City FC had ever been in the black in its 131-year history". She floated it a year later, becoming the youngest MD of a British plc. Her 16-year tenure is remarkable in an industry "where careers are short and patience is even shorter", says the Birmingham Post.

Yet there have been plenty of ups and downs. She shocked the club's old guard by marrying a Canadian player, Paul Peschisolido (though she still sold him twice to raise cash). More recently, she was embroiled in a damaging corruption probe (see below). But after negotiating the club's sale to Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung, Brady leaves it in fine fettle back in the Premiership and financially secure.

How did a convent-educated girl from north London thrive in such a macho world? Hard work and chutzpah, says the Daily Express. Brady learned self-confidence from her property developer father, and rejected the lure of university to "get rich quick" instead. Interviewed by Saatchi & Saatchi for a junior executive's role, she was asked if she preferred a designer coat or one from M&S. "It depends who's paying," she replied. It got her the job. She first encountered Sullivan, owner of the Sport Newspapers, when selling advertising at LBC Radio. Impressed with her skill at coaxing £2m out of him, he hired her. Soon afterwards she showed him an advertisement offering Birmingham City for sale. "Why not buy it?"

Though very dissimilar in style, Sullivan and Brady are two of a kind, says the Daily Mail. While charming, she's also ruthless. "Intoxicating or just toxic, depending on what she wants from you," says a long-time acquaintance. But who can doubt the respect she has earned? As David Gold points out: "Not only does she have the ability but she also has the personality. Not many people have both and that is why she is special."

How she shrugged off the corruption scandal

It's one thing running what The Sun describes as "the club that porn built", quite another to be arrested by City of London police on charges of corruption although Brady doubtless cut a glamorous figure as she click-clacked into Bishopsgate police station in her four-inch Yves St Laurent heels last April. After years of dishing out the red card to recalcitrant players and managers, could Brady, who was subjected to a five-hour grilling before being bailed, really be in line for it herself?

Her embroilment, with Sullivan, in a widespread probe into football bungs which centred on alleged payments made to a football agent and two players shocked the industry, says the Daily Mail. Not least because Brady was known "to have been particularly sniffy about such middle men", and had a reputation for being a stickler about finances.

She had a lot to lose: at one point shares in Birmingham City were suspended, and there were clear implications for her presence on the boards of Mothercare and Channel 4. Having vehemently protested her innocence, her ordeal only came to an end this summer when all charges against herself and Sullivan were dropped, says The Daily Telegraph. Indeed, the police have never fully explained why they arrested her at all.

No doubt Brady will take the experience in her stride, says The Guardian as she did when she nearly died from a brain aneurysm in 2006. "I'm very good at cleaning stuff out of my mind. I don't carry around any baggage." The secret in business, as in life, she believes, is to take the hit and move on.