Carolyn Radford is the CEO of Mansfield Town Football Club and has been since her appointment back in 2011. She was 29 at the time, which earnt her the title of youngest football CEO in the country – a mantle she still possesses at 35.
While Radford always been sporty, her original passion was for politics, which she studied at Durham before transferring over to law.
That educational combination could have made for a role in a grey corporate, but Radford put her legal skills to use in the colourful world of fashion where she worked for the likes of Stella McCartney.
“Fashion is a mixed industry – there are lots of males and females working together,” she said of her time in the sector. “I really enjoyed it and loved the business, so it was a complete contrast coming into football with Mansfield Town.“
At Mansfield Town, she was met with a male-dominated environment, with the exception of the few women found among the catering staff, she recalled.
“I ended up in football as I was setting up a fashion company for my now husband John, who’d just bought Mansfield Town. He moved me to the football arena, and although I had no background in football, not many [CEOs] do,” Radford explained.
“The thing that raised people’s eyebrows was the fact I was female but also because I was 29 at the time, whereas a lot of people involved in football are typically middle-aged men.”
That’s a fair comment. There are countless male football chiefs, but a very short list inclusive of names such as West Ham CEO Karren Brady and Tottenham Hotspur executive director Donna-Marie Cullen, who spoke with us about the plans to scale the North London club at the start of the year.
“These jobs are quite coveted and there was a lot of comments about ‘why should she be appointed?’ when in reality I went to a very good university and have a solid background in business,” continued Radford.
“I’ve been in the role five years and even now people are thinking I can’t do the job. Someone even said recently it’s a publicity stunt. I continually have to prove myself and I’ve become quite strong to make sure the club is successful.”
Radford attributes the casual sexism around her role at Mansfield Town to the fact football is such an emotive business that operates in an extremely results-based sector, which can change on a weekly basis.
“If you don’t win the match, the whole club and commercial have to change. It’s a very unusual business in that respect,” she explained.
While Radford has found her strength over the years, she confessed she wasn’t ready for the onslaught of abuse to come when her appointment as Mansfield Town CEO went public.
“It was a shock to be honest, I didn’t really prepare. I wasn’t aware of how ferocious football can be, so it was shocking for me,” Radford detailed.
“I had to put my head down and get on with the job and do the best in my role, keeping focused rather than dwelling on people’s negative opinions that you can’t do anything about.”
Daily workouts at the gym, family time with her three young children – all boys; two-year-old twins and a three-year-old – and reading inspirational books from entrepreneurs keep her in check and allow her to switch off from naysayers.
She considered her role at Mansfield Town essential and refused to be deterred from her efforts to turn around the failing League Two business, which she said wasn’t being run as a business at all.
The first thing she did was look at “the basic things”. This included realising Mansfield Town was run as a strictly cash-generated business, which had fans pay cash on the turnstiles that were being run by volunteers. From that point, checks and balances were put in place to combat what was a “lot of dishonesty” going on.
Radford said: “I was clear about putting new systems in place, so an initial outcome was spent to sustain the business for the long-term. There were no bars or restaurants at the ground, so I invested in a 24-hour sports bar.
“Outside of matches, there was no activity in the club. I put in features have a sports night, evenings with, weddings and other functions, really making use of the ground.”
In addition to investments for the future of Mansfield Town, Radford also reassessed third-party contracts, of which there were too many – like a photocopier that had been signed up for seven years.
She said that process was a matter of “small things that had to be stripped back”. Agent fees, meanwhile, had to be monitored particularly carefully.
“Knowing how to handle a contract is useful. Agent fees are one to watch out for. A business can lose a lot if you don’t know who’s taking a cut, so you need to make sure a manager is working towards a target that you’ve set,” said Radford. “I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with good managers.
“Ultimately, I’m working with our own money; our children’s inheritance. I have to be much more frugal in terms of liaising to make sure the club gets the best deal, it’s very personal.”
The Mansfield Town CEO revealed the business almost broke even last season, something she called “very tough”. It remains unclear whether that will happen again given the investments made, including the appointment of seasoned manager Steve Evans, who has his eyes on club promotion.
“We’ve spent more. With any business it matters more when it’s your baby. We want success, but it’s not our only business – this is our fun hobby. The main business is insurance and I’m involved in the legal aspect of that,” said Radford.
As director of One Call Insurance, OCL Solicitors and Beauty at Doncaster, you might wonder how she finds the time for Mansfield Town too, but discipline is essential, she explained.
“It makes life interesting – you have your mobile phone and you’re on the go 24/7. There are cameras in every single business, so it’s very Big Brother-ish,” she laughed.
“I have to be very disciplined. We employ over 1,500 people so have got to make sure we run a slick operation, as well as make sure my home life is balanced.
“With football, it’s seven days a week. Most people are off on a Saturday-Sunday, but if we lose, we need to pick players up on Sunday taking care of emotional wellbeing as it’s such an emotional business. By Monday they need to forget about losing to get on with their job.”
That support can be found through things such as yoga, having a discussion with the club therapist, embracing her open-door policy or jetting off on a team-building trip, the most recent of which took them to Malta.
Radford highlighted that players are ultimately exposed – if a personal problem crops up, there’s nowhere to hide, whereas an office worker can stick their head down.
As something of a champion for women at the club, Radford restored a Mansfield Town girls’ team – of which there are 12 – that had previously been disbanded.
“Down the road at Notts County, they’ve just disbanded their girls’ team. It’s a big thing in football still – girls aren’t valued at the same level. The FA has done a lot, but at a grassroots level I see it a lot, they’re not given the same privileges [as boys],” Radford revealed.
“I think it’s a shame. I want to show them what it’s like at a corporate level, that it can be fun to work in football. It’s a very rewarding industry when you look past the discrimination.”
As if all of that isn’t enough, she wants to give back to the community with the Radford Foundation, which will support training and mentoring schemes, in addition to the nurturing of young girls to turn around female representation in the sport.
“It can be tough. Sometimes I realise I’m not Superwoman, but I try hard to find balance.”