Get Even More Visitors To Your Blog, Upgrade To A Business Listing >>

I’d Rather Eat My Own Eyeballs

The following is an amalgam of a couple of related articles liberated from the Times paywall dungeon when the sentinels averted their gaze a few weeks ago...

The vice-chairman of West Ham is trying to be nice, and she needs to be, because the last time she met Times journalist Andrew Davidson it all ended badly, with her promising that he would never work in journalism again. "Did I?" says Karren Brady, making very large eyes at him over her hamster cheeks. Yes, she phoned, she swore, she shouted, she threatened. But that was in May 1995, and they’ve both moved on. But what had he written about her? Only that fans of Birmingham, where she was chief executive, were unhappy with her running of the football club, and the fact that the money that put her there, supplied by David Gold and David Sullivan, had been made in the porn industry. Sullivan had once been convicted of living off immoral earnings.

It sounds quaint now — football worrying about where the money comes from. But the unexpected menace in Brady’s call is still fresh in his memory. She sighs. "I think experience brings an element of patience. Back then, I just wanted to win everything." Then she crosses and uncrosses her 2in platform shoes, flicks back her hair, and turns her attention to her computer. Brady, 43, is funny and frank, but eventually distracted, taking calls, fiddling with her Macbook, studying emails, punching replies then turning back to say: "What did you ask?"

We are in her office, all light, leather and contemporary prints — a little bit of Soho inside West Ham’s dilapidated ground, squeezed by terraces and tower blocks in impoverished Newham, east London. Brady wakes at her apartment in London’s Knightsbridge at 6.30am before being driven here before 9am in her Bentley Continental to oversee the club for Gold and Sullivan; they bought control from the Icelandic bank Straumur in 2010, months after selling Birmingham. Since then West Ham’s fortunes have nose-dived, out of the Premier League, into the Championship, totally reliant on its owners’ cash to prop up its £80m revenues. But Brady’s fortunes have soared — a regular on BBC1’s The Apprentice, she has an autobiography out and her profile has never been higher. Television producers are her latest fans. "I get offered a new series three times a week," she mock-moans. "Come to the jungle, trek to the North Pole, dine with me, Ready Steady Cook, Celebrity Family Fortunes — I’d rather eat my own eyeballs."

What’s not clear is whether she really is a good business manager. Birmingham’s fortunes were mixed, but Brady — whom many thought a 'gimmick' when appointed managing director aged 23 — proved resilient. Her reward, after her bosses sold Birmingham for a profit, was West Ham — the boyhood club of both Gold and Sullivan — where she is vice-chairman, but in effect chief executive. "Every day is different, but fundamentally it is finance and marketing," she says. Eight executives report direct to her and she also heads West Ham’s attempts to move to the Olympic stadium, as well as liaising with team manager Sam Allardyce. All player sales are handled by Sullivan. She says she enjoyed Birmingham. "I ran a tight and happy ship." But she was never loved by its supporters. "Never loved? I don’t know. On reflection I think people appreciate..." The phone rings (yet again). "Hello, can I call you back? Oh, I hadn’t seen that, leave it with me ..."

Brady has a small shareholding in West Ham, and takes director fees from Arcadia and Syco. The surprise is that she never returned to the advertising world where she started. She was a trainee at Saatchi & Saatchi aged 18, and describes it as "the most influential year of my life". She learnt about brand building, communication and "being on-message". She left to sell ads for LBC, the radio station, where she so impressed Sullivan, a client, that he put her in charge of Sport Newspapers. Later she persuaded him that football was an opportunity. Brady prefers to work for entrepreneurs. She now advises Sir Philip Green and Simon Cowell — sitting on their boards — and she loves Lord Sugar, the reason she joined The Apprentice. You can see where she gets her brittle directness. She nods. "Self-made decision-makers, those are the people I work best with as I prefer the direct approach. My dad was an entrepreneur."

Her father Terry, who made money from printing and owned a box at Arsenal, was her introduction to the football world. Two years in the sixth-form at a boys’ boarding school in Aldenham, Hertfordshire hardened her approach. She had to be tough to withstand the inevitable gossip that followed her relationship with Sullivan, but she never toned down, appearing designered and coiffed, like a rich man’s girlfriend. She still gets stick, with reviewers of her book — Strong Woman — asking how she can claim to be a feminist after working in the porn industry. "But I’ve never worked in it, and things have changed. David Gold’s daughter runs his Ann Summers business, Sullivan’s property portfolio is overseen by a woman." She throws a look, as if to say, who’s the victim? Her argument is that, in many ways, women are better managers than men, and men should acknowledge it. "The great thing is that we are natural nurturers of people."

The book, she insists, is not self-promotion but "I have to get my plug in somewhere"; nor is her popping up as judge for this year’s Nectar small business awards. She is now, as the award blurb claims, 'one of the UK’s leading businesswomen' — she is also unique, a female pioneer in the fiercely chauvinistic world of football, who wants to encourage other women in business. And what about the day job? "I’d never do television if it compromised my work here." Some wonder whose brand she is building, however. She shrugs. "It comes back to working out who you are. I had brain surgery in 2006" — for an aneurysm — "and it made me realise life is very short."

Brady's time is shorter and more stricty regimented than most. She uses a personal shopper to buy her clothes. "So Harvey Nichols comes to me. But I don’t spend as much as you think." She works four days a week in London while her husband oversees their home in Knowle, near Birmingham. Married with two children, her first call of the day is "from my kids on the way to school at 7.15." Brady frequently works till 10pm, "but that’s usually because I am at a function, not at West Ham." In what little downtime there is she will happily "spend my money on travel," (Mexico is a favourite) and she says, "I never begrudge the school fees." Most weekends she is "supporting my 13-year-old son’s rugby team or working as a taxi driver for my 16-year-old daughter."

David Gold says he has no qualms if her other obligations reflects well on his club. As for Brady eyeing opportunities elsewhere, he says determination and loyalty are her key character traits. "She is the first lady of football — she wouldn’t be that in advertising or media." Yet she isn’t a football fan. Her husband Paul Peschisolido, recently sacked as manager of Burton Albion, is far more engaged. One newspaper claimed she fell asleep during West Ham’s recent game against Cardiff City. "I was tweeting," she protests.

So, if West Ham had lost against Blackpool at Wembley? "It would have frustrating but I would not have walked away. What frustrates me more is the Olympic stadium." West Ham was selected as preferred bidder, then deselected when the process changed. The decision has been delayed again. It has been an excruciating period for Gold and Sullivan, who are putting £35m a year of their own money into the club. Some supporters would rather eat their own eyeballs than use them to watch their team across a running track, which is a non-negotiable feature after the Government’s promise to leave a legacy for athletics. Brady pulls out the latest stadium plans, showing stands extended over the athletics track for matches, and brushes aside quibbles about a lack of atmosphere. "David and David wouldn’t allow it if it didn’t work. It will be amazing." The West Ham executives believe it will be a "piece of history" that will attract new fans if the club relocated from Upton Park to Stratford after the London Games.

It is the second time West Ham have been in the frame after the first process, which resulted in the club being chosen as preferred bidder in partnership with Newham Council, collapsed in red tape following a complaint to the European Commission about illegal state aid. The lengthy exercise, which pitted West Ham against Tottenham Hotspur, cost about £300,000 in fees. Brady insists it was worth bidding again because the opportunity to increase the gate from 35,000 to 60,000 in a new stadium with better transport links is "too good to miss". But their offer to become the anchor winter tenant in a multi-use stadium is conditional on it being a "world-class" venue for football, she adds.

West Ham maintain the sightlines "stack up" and that the top tiers will be closer to the action than at Wembley. Brady says her supporter advisory board had seen details of the bid, which is subject to confidentiality agreements, and approved although she understood the general scepticism of some fans. "I don’t blame them, to be honest, but they cannot see what we can see," she says. "Everybody who has seen our vision has voted in favour, even those who write for fanzines and have been very negative."

She insists the new commercial terms on offer, which would mean West Ham will become a 'concessionaire' paying an annual rent to the government under a 99-year lease, would secure the club’s long-term future. This is presently dependent on the backing of Gold and Sullivan. The sale of Upton Park would be expected to repay the estimated £70 million debt. The downside of simply leasing the ground would be offset by not having the burden of the upfront capital costs — an estimated £100 million — of making it fit for professional sport with corporate hospitality suites, toilets, offices, merchandising outlets and catering. "Ownership gives you a certain level of completeness because you make your own decisions," she says. "We will be a tenant but overall, we still think the commercial package is viable."

The Olympic Park Legacy Company, now merged into the London Legacy Development Corporation, is offering tenants the chance to bid for naming rights. Brady points out these could be worth about £10 million a year if football was the main activity. West Ham, who have the support of UK Athletics, hope to attract more fans by offering cheaper tickets and a taste of British sporting heritage. They claim to have 850,000 registered supporters and enough demand to fill 60,000 seats. The nearby corporate market in Canary Wharf will also be targeted now the club has returned to the Premier League. "It’s a piece of history," insists Brady, repeating the new mantra. "It’s the only Olympic stadium in the UK and it will attract crowds. You cannot bully the Government. They are not going to be strong-armed into decisions under the threat of judicial review. The most important thing for them is usage, community, jobs and revenue and we tick all boxes."

And that will be "job done" if they secure it? "My remit here is to reduce debt, introduce process, and get the Olympic stadium. In my first year, we reduced the debt to £70m, made a trading profit and won the stadium, then we got relegated, fell back into loss, debt went up, we lost the stadium..." But she never quits. Suddenly Davidson feels the need to apologise that their last meeting didn’t go as well. He's not sure what he did, but whatever he did, he's sorry. And she smiles back through whitened, gritted teeth before playfully reaching for her phone.

This post first appeared on Just Like My Dreams..., please read the originial post: here

Share the post

I’d Rather Eat My Own Eyeballs