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Karren Brady's lessons for success

11th Feb 2015
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Former managing director of Birmingham City FC Karren Brady - now an author, novelist, TV broadcaster, politician and newspaper columnist - shared her knowledge of growing a business from the brink of administration to selling for more than £80m with Xerocon attendees yesterday.

Brady reflected on her experience of buying Birmingham FC as a 23-year-old. In addition to becoming MD of a club that was as she puts it, "falling down", she also faced the challenge of being young and a woman in a male-dominated world. 

One press reporter at the time told her she had, in want of a more polite phrase, copious amounts of confidence usually represented by a certain male appendage. This, Brady said, was something any small business owner needs to have. 

And her confidence stood her in good stead. 

From accounting practises across departments to the accounts department itself, Brady found she was left with the challenge of modernising and bringing a good culture into a company that had no goals and no direction. 

The first hire she made, she said, was her accountant - who to date, since 1993, is still acting for her. From her talk, the value of accounts and accounting within the football club was seen as one of the most important issues for Brady. 

Manual accounts and payroll were still being done within the club - there were no PCs - which meant footballers and staff had to line up to be paid via brown envelopes every week. In one example, a player's sign on fee was given to another of a similarly spelled wrong name where the accounts assistant had written in the wrong box in the cash book. 

"It was then I realised the enormity of my task," she said. 

Figures were also being massaged in departments, with interdepartmental invoices being sent to try to keep up a 60% programme sales rate - when in reality one department was invoicing another for programmes given away to certain attendees of football matches for free. 

One of the first things Brady changed, she said, was the culture. 

"You need to motivate people's hearts and minds; give them passion and entrepreneurial spirit and make them part of the organisation, feel part of the 'inner circle'," she said. 

"Nothing is ever achieved alone when you're running a small business. It's all achieved with team work and listening to people with an open mind." 

She put goals in place and created expectations for people - and eventually things started to change. 

The football playing and facilities of the club weren't much to offer to customers alone, she found. There was nothing different the club could offer next to bigger and better nearby clubs like Aston Villa. So she started to change the culture of the business from the inside, using the only real asset the club had - people. 

Brady hired.

And as, she discovered, there was nothing much to offer customers as the standard of both the football and facilities weren't up to scratch, she realised she had to work with the only asset she had, people, and started to build the brand.

The club decided to make itself known in the community, and hired 35 community officers to teach people about healthy eating and living.

In addition, it also started schemes to offer lower priced football matches to kids, lone parents and children who received school dinners for free. It also hired 12 full time teachers. 

Brady was also faced with the challenge of bringing various parts of the club together in a spirit of unity. Using an example of two 18 year olds, one working for £15,000 a year at the ticket office, another for £15,000 a week as a footballer, how, she asked, could you get both to buy into the same ethos and make them see the value of one another?

One solution, she said, was to get the footballers to work one day a month in the ticket office to appreciate the value of hard work at the forefront. The result was that both footballer and ticket seller came to learn the value of one another's place in the organisation and therefore respect.

And those who did not learn respect, as Brady illustrated in a footballer who made a disparaging remark to her and was then sold to another team - would not be part of the culture.

After a bumpy ride bringing the club's management and operation into the modern world, Brady sold the club on in 2009 for £81.5m. That year was the club's sixth season in the Premier League, and Brady went on to become vice president of West Ham FC the following year. 

In addition to her story, she shared some tips on what businesses - and accountants - need to do to succeed.

  • Good leadership - The true sign of a good leader is how they behave when they don't know what to do. Those that weather for example recessions well, are those who listen to clients or customers and make the right decisions based on what must be done rather than what they want to do 
  • Ambition - Without this, no one would ever have started anything, Brady said. Using the example of Lord Sugar with whom she films The Apprentice, she says despite his success he is the first person on the set and the last one to leave. "The toughest thing about being successful is that once you are, you have to keep on being successful. You need to be driven by your ambition," she said 
  • Determination - This, Brady said, is the one key thing to her success. You will suffer defeat and even failure, but determination is how you pick yourself up. One of the toughest things to do is to find your backbone and grit your teeth, and to keep going sometimes, she said
  • Attitude - If you don't like something then change it, if you can't change it, you need to change your attitude about it 
  • Direction - Know where you want to go. Brady said that since school-leaving age, she always knew she wanted to be independent and so took the work rather than university route. Know what direction you want to go in and your determination, persistence and ambition will bring you along the way 
  • Be positive 

What are your top tips for success? Do you drive good culture in your firm - or like Brady, do something that bit different to give back to the community?


Replies (13)

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By MattG
11th Feb 2015 13:52

Not wishing to diminish what she may have achieved, but presumably having a rich father with rich contacts helps you get started.....

Taken from Wikipedia:


Her Irish father, Terry Brady, had made his fortune in printing and property development.


Brady’s career began as a trainee at the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi[15] [16] having been rejected for a place on a journalism course.[17] A year later, on joining the London Broadcasting Company [18] (LBC) as an advertising account executive, she was able to secure the advertising business of one of her father's largest clients, David Sullivan.[19] Sullivan spent more than £2,000,000 on advertising in six months, on condition that Brady managed the account.[20]

Sullivan offered her a job with Sport Newspapers,[21] and she became one of his directors at the age of 20. While in Sullivan's employ, Brady spotted an advert for the sale of Birmingham City F.C. in the Financial Times, when the club was in receivership,[22] and persuaded Sullivan to buy it and let her run it. Sullivan later commented that he agreed to the deal because such a young, female director would attract publicity to the club, and also because Brady was a "sacker"....


Also I assume it was made clear in her presentation, but the article above gives the impression that she bought the club, when in fact it was bought by David Sullivan. Which is why I Googled her in the first place,intrigued as to how a 23 year old had the cash to buy a club, I assumed it would be her parents, but I was slightly out....

Thanks (2)
Replying to The Dullard:
By listerramjet
13th Feb 2015 11:14

well off the mark

MattG.  very patronising, but wrong.  In fact David Sullivan and the Gold brothers "purchased" a company on the brink for a nominal sum.  Brady was a part of the consortium, and the one who turned it around.  Her familial background is entirely irrelevant - why would you bring it up?

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By Lship
11th Feb 2015 14:15


Also isn't she a Dame now? Surely the title shouldn't be omitted from the article...

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By alistairthurlow
11th Feb 2015 14:34

Not to diminish further but.

Wikipedia ( or Google) will show that the purchaser of Birmingham City was an upright honest citizen who has taken the club to even more success!!!!!!!!!

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By Rachael White
12th Feb 2015 08:48

Matt & Lship

Hi both, 

Thanks for your comments! The main premise of the article wasn't about who bought the club or who they knew but rather what they did once they got in and how they changed the culture and processes. 

Also Karren wasn't referred to nor did she refer to herself by her title at the conference, therefore I thought it best not to refer to it in my article - but you are correct, she is Baroness Brady.

Once again thanks for the comments and the debate! 


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By andrew.hyde
13th Feb 2015 11:19

Absolutely correct

It's absolutely correct to say that Karen Brady got a helping hand at the start of her career.  The point is of course to look at what she did afterwards, which was clearly to her own credit. In cricketing terms she seems to have played a straight bat, left the wide balls alone, and scored from the long hops. Not by any means a David Gower, but rather a David Steele, employing sound technique and maintaining strong focus.

You could favourably compare her career to that of a member of the aristocracy, born into titles and wealth, who ends up as a drug addict.  Not saying that is typical by any means.  Any resemblance to any real person is of course coincidental.

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By johnjenkins
13th Feb 2015 11:50

Great article

Rachael. There are pros and cons.

Kenny won the league with Blackburn - or was it the money. There are now so many examples of this.

However, money can get you to a certain point then it takes a certain finesse to finish the job. The one point the article makes is very true. Once successful you have to adapt to stay successful unless you have a charismatic personality.

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By seeroo
13th Feb 2015 12:25

Have to agree with MattG throwing money at the problem seems to be a large part of turning it around.  Didn't have to be her money but most young business people don't have access to those resources.

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By Still Struggling
13th Feb 2015 12:32

I sense sour grapes here with the train of comments.  Surely what is relevant is the principals through which she turned around a struggling Club and which are equally applicable in many other business situations. Fair deuce to her and that i may be as successful


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By seeroo
13th Feb 2015 12:59

It is impressive that she has turned it around into an £80m club and you could look at it like sour gapes but I can't believe anyone who went into that club would have failed to change the accounting systems and culture in place when they were that bad otherwise what would be the point in buying it.  They seem like easy wins to me, as auditors we do that every week for clients.

Just sick of seeing reports in the media patting privileged people with lots of opportunities on the back for being oh so clever.  How about we hear about someone who has overcome real difficulties without any resources behind them.

Lets not forget that it takes money and risk to make money.  There was no risk here, I doubt they would have allowed the club to fail.

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By othornto
13th Feb 2015 13:00

Cant Believe she is still trotting this out

Its the same Birmingham City superhero story she has been trotting out for years. Not amended, embellished or added to through future successes.

And yes she is a sacker. You need people like that sometimes but not people who tell jokes about it at speaking engagements.

She is not nice. There are multitudes of business role models out there and you don't need this one.

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By johnjenkins
13th Feb 2015 14:46

Successful business

people are often ruthless and uncaring. They seem blinkered as to the task in hand. If you embark on a project then, sometimes, you need to be detached to get the job done.

Inventors are not mindful about what is around them. They don't even have a clue regarding costs. Sugar and Sinclair is just one example of how the two can work together.

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By listerramjet
14th Feb 2015 15:49

well I wonder

So did Sullivan look at her family background? or perhaps her looks?  Or perhaps it was her attitude and results that gave her the edge, and then what she did when given the chance.  It is very easy to make simple connections, but usually they turn out to be wrong. 

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