In business, time management is a tricky opponent. That’s exactly the kind of fact one might expect to see delivered by Karren Brady on The Apprentice in her role as Lord Sugar’s right-hand woman.
But the 18 candidates in the new series can take heart from the fact that even she – with her estimated wealth of £85 million from a lifetime in business – falls victim to the time-management foe occasionally. Twice an interview with Radio Times was scheduled with her for 12 noon at her office at the London Stadium, where she is now West Ham United’s chief executive officer; twice I drove most of the way there, before, twice, the meeting was cancelled at short notice.
There is certainly no doubting her demanding schedule. It doesn’t do the 48-year-old businesswoman justice to list her merely as West Ham’s CEO. At present, as well as returning to The Apprentice, she’s also a senior non-executive director with Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment and with Taveta, owner of Topshop.
She writes a column for the Sun on Sunday, regularly tweeting individual responses to those of her 233,000 Twitter followers expressing admiration for the column’s contents.
Awarded a CBE three years ago for services to women in business and entrepreneurship, she had already been appointed a government business ambassador when she became Baroness Brady of Knightsbridge in 2014, and attends the House of Lords as regularly as her other commitments allow.
She is also closely involved with at least five charities and alongside all this, her two children from her 22-year marriage to the Canadian footballer-turned-pundit Paul Peschisolido are now entering adulthood.
“It doesn’t come without an awful lot of hard work,” she says when we finally do talk. “But if your career has you bouncing out of bed because you can’t wait to get to work, it enriches your life. I have striven all my life to make my own decisions, and never be told what to do. I only do things I want to do, when I want to do them.”
Asked what she imagines it’s like to be married to her, Brady says with comical sweetness: “Wonderful!” Then she laughs at herself. “It can’t be too bad – we’re still going strong. We respect each other, and understand the things we each do are important. We both work very hard and want to share that success with family and friends, and we do that with a lot of laughs.
“We understand that everything we do is relatively serious and we have to be professional. Paul is never begrudging if plans have to change because he accepts that the things that I do come with great responsibility.”
Working life has always motivated her. The daughter of a north-London businessman and an Italian housewife, Brady’s first job at 18 was with ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. She famously so impressed David Sullivan – owner of the Daily and Sunday Sport – with her campaign to sell him £2 million of ad space that he not only bought the ads but gave her a job.
He then spent £700,000 buying Birmingham City in 1993 at her suggestion, installing her, aged 23, as the managing director. By the time it was sold in 2009, the club’s value had soared to £82million.
By then already a regular on The Apprentice as a fearsome interviewer of the Final Five, Brady became one of Lord Sugar’s two on-screen consultants in 2010.
Seven years later, as the BBC’s ratings behemoth commences series 13, some see The Apprentice as a reality game show. But Brady describes it purely in terms of business excellence, flatly refuting the idea that the goal of the programme is merely to create a weekly hour of prime-time entertainment. “No, it’s to find an outstanding candidate,” she says. “The prize is not a ball of glitter, it’s an investment of £250,000 into your business, with Lord Sugar as your partner. It has changed the winners’ lives; they have established and built their businesses, something they would never have been able to do as entrepreneurs without Alan. It becomes entertaining because people are interested in business.”
Whisper it, but it seems possible that some make the list of candidates because their capering egotism promises good telly. What of Michael Parkinson’s view that The Apprentice “is full of vulgar, loud people dobbing each other in”?
Brady laughs in recognition. “There’s some truth in that. I do find some of their decisions bizarre. But there are no retakes on the programme. There is no script. Everything unfolds exactly as you see it.”
She says she remains in touch with at least four of the winning candidates, including last year’s winner Alana Spencer. “We email. They’re all thriving, working with Alan.”
In the matter of business practice, however, the BBC has had difficulties of its own of late. July saw the Corporation publish a list of all the on-screen talent to whom it pays more than £150,000 a year. Was that a good idea? “The BBC is publicly funded so people want to know where their licence fee is spent and who gets what,” says Brady.
“Most shocking was the disparity between men and women effectively doing the same job. Emily… what’s her name? From Newsnight. Yes, Maitlis. She wasn’t on the list but her counterpart, Evan Davis, is on almost double. Gary Lineker earns £1.8 million, while his female equivalent, Clare Balding, is on £199,000. He is not overpaid; she is shockingly underpaid. A lot of the men should be forcing the BBC to pay more.
“The BBC keep talking about how they will redress the balance, but change can happen very quickly in an organisation if a CEO is determined to make that happen. Tony Hall [the BBC director-general] just needs to make the decision to resolve it, and then go and resolve it.
“On The Apprentice, I’m 100 per cent certain I’m paid the same as [fellow adviser to Lord Sugar] Claude Littner. I insisted on equality when I negotiated my contract. I would not have allowed anything else. Not all women are good at negotiating pay, but I’m not a television personality. I’m a CEO, and more than capable of negotiating for myself.
“Most of my senior people here at West Ham are women. The footballers aside, more women than men here are on high salaries. Speaking as a woman who got her CBE for services particularly to women in business, nothing pleases me more than to see other women doing well.”
However, one woman of Brady’s acquaintance is experiencing uncertain times at present. “I’ve met the Prime Minister, yes, although not so that I can ring her up and say, ‘Hi Theresa, it’s Karren.’”
What impression has she formed? “She’s a very serious, professional woman,” she replies, then stops. Anything else? “Nope.”
How does Brady feel the PM comes across to other women? “Exactly as she is – very serious, professional, statesmanlike, lacking… you know… Mmm, no, I’m not going to say that. I’ll stop there.”
Is she “robotic”, as is said? Brady’s answer implies agreement. “If you’re not hugely gregarious or a natural communicator, that’s what people will end up saying about you.”
And what of Brady? How does she think she comes across to other women herself? “I hope as a role model who inspires others to be the best version of themselves. I always make time for other women. I promote them in my own businesses and mentor them elsewhere. I’m totally a feminist in that I want equality – not more, but not less.”
And men? How does she think she comes over to men? “I’ve never really thought about it,” she says. “How do you think I come over to men?” I tell her of a deeply unscientific survey I carried out among a small group who have had professional dealings with her. Those of a positive view not only admired her but saw her as warm and funny. They were all female. Those of an alternative view were all men.
“Well,” said Brady with a smile, “c’est la vie. It’s lucky I’ve got thick skin, and I couldn’t care less.” In the best possible way, she clearly means it.