Karren Brady: Transforming a failing football club

Birmingham City Football Club now has an enviable reputation – both on and off the pitch. Managing director Karren Brady tells GrowthBusiness how she instilled a culture of success in a perennially depressed venture.

Karren Brady’s transformation of Birmingham City Football Club has been well documented. When she took over as managing director just over ten years ago at the age of 23 the club was languishing in Division Two (football’s no-man’s land), had condemned decrepit buildings, swathes of disgruntled fans and a large turnover of staff with no ambition. Bizarrely, much of its day-to-day survival depended on barter, or ‘contras’ as this ancient trade is now known. Basically, if a small job needed doing, it was in return for a season ticket, while larger jobs were swapped for executive boxes or other such rewards.

As Brady admits, the club was ‘professional football’s equivalent of a rubbish tip where things were so bad they couldn’t get any worse’. Success was lacking on the pitch and business was lacking in the boardroom.

Today it’s a different story. The 2002-2003 season was Birmingham’s first in the Premiership – a year that saw the club transform a £6.4 million pre-tax loss into a £3.3 million pre-tax profit. At present, the team is pushing for place in Europe.

Loyalty brings business rewards

Brady puts this transformation in fortunes down to her backers, David Sullivan and the Gold brothers. But she places equal emphasis on the team she has built round her and the introduction of a new, staff-led corporate culture.

‘The most important part of any business is the staff who work there – we’re a tightly knit team with an open-door policy,’ she explains.

This openness and staff-orientated approach has brought considerable rewards for the company. For instance, the club now boasts an enviable attendance record – both on and off the pitch. The majority of staff work a six-day week and the average time off sick is just a quarter of a day each year.

When you consider that Birmingham City has only 45 members of staff – around 35 per cent lower than most Premiership clubs – which means that everyone has at least two, and sometimes three jobs to do, the loyalty of staff is even more impressive.

Learn from the big boys

‘We have a strong culture that has been built on being a small business, which still stands true today. But the bigger you grow, the more emphasis there is on areas such as HR.

Even now, she adds, ‘we can’t afford management consultants, or the time and expense incurred by going on training courses’. Instead, she encourages her staff to follow a practice she has preached in her past. Brady is a strong believer in learning from other people’s successes, and much of what she has learnt has come from visiting other companies. At Birmingham, she has instigated a ‘job-swap’ policy with other much bigger businesses for a wide variety of staff (although Brady claims that thus far she has been too busy to try this herself!)

The club’s receptionist recently did a job-swap at HMV, customer service employees have worked at Virgin, those involved in retail have gone to Next and ticket sellers have spent time on the job at the NEC, the biggest exhibition group in Europe.

Another boost to staff morale comes from not just learning from the ‘big boys’ from a commercial point of view, but also facing the big guns of the Premiership every Saturday. Indeed, ensuring that Birmingham remain in the Premier League is key as she admits that ‘for pure staff motivation, it’s certainly more exciting getting the bus to a game with Manchester United than one to Bristol Rovers’.

Transferring skills, generating ideas

From an operational point of view, one of the hardest tasks she has had to undertake as MD is recognising when people can’t go any further in the business. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean there are no other options for them at the company.

Related: Karren Brady Q&A – 6 qualities of a successful entrepreneur

‘You have to recognise that [after a certain period] some people are no longer viable in certain roles. What I like to do is move them into other areas – as long as they can always generate new ideas, this can be beneficial.’

As part of ongoing motivation, the staff at Birmingham are regularly encouraged to put forward ideas, whatever their role and however much they earn.

‘We hold regular internal meetings to review work ethics and to listen to people’s ideas. It’s important that we act on things quickly to maximise opportunities – once a game has gone, the opportunity has gone with it,’ believes Brady.

Brady stresses the importance of no hierarchy and no titles and believes that her staff are highly rewarded in many different ways.

‘Someone who is on £9,000 a year in the ticket office, to someone who is on £60,000 in our commercial business can give ideas on cost-cutting and ways of generating income. Besides basic salaries, there are bonuses and share incentives that can be earned for anyone that contributes,’ Brady points out.

Other ways of motivating staff include trips to Paris and everyone is entitled to more days holiday the longer they have worked at the company. In addition there are awards ceremonies held at the club where staff vote for ‘employer/employee of the year’.

The inclusive culture extends beyond the staff to the Blues’ loyal band of supporters. The club has a series of community projects to encourage attendance and build morale, such as Kids a Quid (to encourage younger fans), Family Stand (with special concessions for single parents) and Community Classroom.

Rising through the ranks

Promoting from within and ensuring that staff recognise there are ongoing opportunities in the club for personal development is another policy that Brady believes in. She cites a person employed as a secretary when she was 16 who has since risen through the ranks to become director of HR.

‘We constantly compare ourselves to other businesses around us. I have found this to be hugely motivational. It’s very important to tell each person what is required of them and how they need to get there.’

Researching other businesses and the women who run them is the focus of Brady’s recently published book, Playing To Win (published by Capstone). Dianne Thompson, the managing director of Camelot, has inspired Brady .

‘Camelot has a cascade meeting every morning – where information is ‘cascaded’ down the company, so everyone in the office, from the cleaner to the chaiman, knows what is going on,’ explains Brady.

At Birmingham, much of Brady’s time is taken up making certain her staff are kept up to date with company news.

‘We put a lot of effort into ensuring that our staff know everything before others. When we went public, we had to change the way we did this. Now we present our results to the City and then do consultations with staff and various departments, to highlight what needs to be done,’ she says.

And as Brady sums up, attitude and a positive frame of mind is all-important.

‘Success is largely due to hanging on when everyone else has let go.’

See also: 5 habits of highly successful entrepreneurs revealed

Marc Barber

Raven Connelly

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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