Sarah Knight – More Is In You
Sarah Knight is an absolute boss. Literally and metaphorically. Owner and Managing Director of Sarah West Recruitment (based at Darts Farm in Topsham), she has stood the test of time professionally and battled through personal adversity. With relentless forward motion, she has navigated life’s big gear-change moments with grace, gritted her teeth when the going has got tough and kept her eyes on the prize. All of this became crystal clear when we recently met at Grow Coffee House for a Flat White and a natter.
Brentwood born and raised (a town made famous in recent years as the epicentre of all things TOWIE), Sarah grew up in a tight family unit, with her parents and two brothers. Thick as thieves. All for one and one for all. That kind of family.
Describing her upbringing, Sarah explained,
“I went to the local comprehensive school but had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Sort of ironic bearing in mind the career that I have ended up in, helping others to work out their next step in their career journey! As such, I entered the world of work very young, getting an admin job at a financial services company.
“That was fairly short-lived though as I had my son at the age of just seventeen. Having a child so young hadn’t been in my life plan but it went on to be an important driver for the life choices that followed. It also meant that my career didn’t really start properly until my early-to-mid-twenties once he’d started school. I got stuck into a role at an insurance providers but realised quickly that, although I could pick new things up really quickly, that I also got bored quickly and needed to be challenged and have variety in my job roles.”
PROVING DOUBTERS WRONG
Personal circumstances saw Sarah move down to Exmouth in 1998, when she was in her early twenties. Despite having seen herself as a ‘city girl’, she relished the coastal setting and the differences between the South West and South East. What had initially been intended to be a year out to be closer to the family of her partner at the time (following a serious car accident that he was in), turned into her new permanent residence – a choice which she hasn’t regretted since.
She had visited Exeter with CV in-hand, to drop into recruitment agencies and see if they had any relevant roles that she could apply for. In a serendipitous turn, one of those agencies actually asked if Sarah would come in on a short-term contract to work for them and that is where her illustrious career in recruitment started.
Working for some time in the local branch of a national agency, she cut her teeth and learnt the ropes of the industry, receiving some excellent training. It was here that a superior had commented to Sarah that they didn’t feel that she was ‘salesy’ enough to run a commercial recruitment team in the future. With these words ringing loudly in her ears, she decided fairly quickly that she wanted to work for a smaller agency and followed a colleague of hers at the time to a fairly sizeable local recruitment agency. This took her more into the sales side of recruitment, away from the contract side of the process that she had predominantly been involved with up until that point and gave her an opportunity to prove her previous boss wrong.
And prove them wrong she did! After a successful few years, which included being headhunted to start up a new agency in Exeter, she eventually went out on her own in 2005, with bags full of passion and a pocketful of dreams. She had seen the best and worst of the industry and had formed some rock-solid relationships in the area, making her a trusted advisor to many local businesses and individuals when it came to recruitment.
FRIENDS, ALLIES, PARTNERS
By this point, she had also had her daughter, who was very young at the point that she set up her own agency. In a pattern which emerged throughout Sarah’s recounting of her journey so far in life, she shared,
“Setting up the agency happened very suddenly and hadn’t been in my life plans. I had just had my daughter and the opportunity arose. It was sort of a one-time thing and I either had to jump at the opportunity or miss it completely. So I went for it! I have learned that I thrive under pressure and I had a great deal of support, including a loan from my Dad.”
She went on,
“For the first six months, I worked from my kitchen table, trying to get my head around how to run a business. Before long, I realised that this style of working, whilst cheap, wasn’t ideal so I moved into my first office and started to gradually build a team.”
A key person in this journey was Celina Herbert (nee West) who joined Sarah’s company near the beginning and quickly became her friend, ally and, eventually, her business partner. Over a ten-year period, they grew Sarah West Recruitment together – the name coming from Sarah’s first name and Celina’s surname at the time. They were joined at the hip and became an excellent partnership.
This partnership was, sadly, to come to an end in 2017 when Celina decided that it was time for her to pursue opportunities elsewhere. This gave Sarah the opportunity to buy Celina out and become sole Director of the business. Sarah explained how hard it was for this chapter of their story to come to a close, telling me,
“It was a massive loss and a real blow to lose Celina. We continue to be close friends but I still miss her! Parting ways professionally felt a bit like getting divorced – a very difficult and emotional process. Looking back it is amazing that we managed to navigate such a painful process but remain so close and fond of each other.”
“I’ll never forget actually, on the very last day that we worked together, we both took the day off, went and signed all of the legal paperwork and then went for a long walk and a nice meal together . It was the most amicable breakup that I’ve ever had, and I’ve had my fair share!”
Despite the challenges that came with Celina leaving, Sarah described the time since with great excitement and a glint in her eye. It was clear that she has relished being the sole Director of the business and tackled this solo challenge with great gusto and positivity. When Celina left, Sarah lost her sounding board and, also, the emotional support that came with that. However, since then, she has realised that she actually has more drive, creativity and problem-solving ability in her than she gives herself credit for. She has become more self-confident and decisive.
BECOMING RESILIENT, EMBRACING CHANGE
One of the things that I love about my job is getting to sit back and listen to the meta-narrative of someone’s life. Often, this gives me the chance to observe patterns or themes in someone’s story. As I sat and listened to Sarah, I noticed one striking theme – that she has often been faced with the stark choice of either sinking, or swimming. And, you guessed it, she’s become a pretty decent swimmer.
I shared this observation with her and she reflected,
“I feel like I’ve been getting knocked back time and time again since I was seventeen really. That said, I’ve learned in life that you can’t stop yourself from getting knocked back. If I’m honest, I’ve got pretty good at getting up again, dusting myself down and trying to embrace the pain and the change of a given circumstance. I’ve been around the block enough times to see that, usually, these difficulties come and go and even sometimes bear fruit – learning new things, new skills and new resilience where you might not have had it before.”
This mindset and worldview was demonstrated perfectly by Sarah when she recently cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats – a mind-boggling and arse-numbing 980 miles in just nine days. Raising money for Hospiscare and Farms for City Children, Sarah and her close friend Sam Gatehouse undertook this mammoth ride under the banner of ‘Get Your Cake’ a brand which they had developed in partnership with The Bard Collective to leverage their fundraising efforts against.
This was by no means Sarah’s first foray into mixing endurance sports and charity work. In previous years, she has climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, run the London Marathon, jumped out of a plane, completed the reputed hardest sportive in the UK – the L’Etape Wales/aka the Dragon Ride- cycled from London to Paris, swum round the Scilly Islands, completed the Dart’s 10k swim and completed a number of triathlons
Nothing could’ve prepared Sarah and Sam for this physical, mental and emotional barrage. Battling against some of the worst weather imaginable, a sickness bug and back-to-back ten-hour days of relentless cycling, there were times where they were genuinely unsure if they’d be able to finish.
“We did so much training in the build-up to the event. It was the most amazing and horrible thing that I’ve ever done! We could never have accounted for the brutal weather and a sickness bug that Sam picked up during the ride. The organisers of the ride had a saying that ‘More was in you’ which they kept communicating to the riders each morning. At first it was cheesy but, about halfway into the ride, it became a mantra for me and Sam. It’s also stuck with me since the ride too. It’s given me a drive and a focus that I don’t think I’ve ever had before. Who knows what might be next…watch this space!”
Despite it being only weeks since the ride, I asked Sarah what crazy plans she was hatching for the future. She joked,
“Give me a breather. I’ve only just finished this one!”
before going on to tell me that she always tries to plan to do at least one thing per year which she is genuinely not sure if she will be able to do. It seemed though that, in 2020, this would more likely be directly linked with her business than a sporting challenge. There is a fire in her belly and a steely determination in her eyes which demonstrate a certainty and focus on the next season. Whatever she sets her mind to, I can’t help but feel that it will be a success.
Known for their immovable integrity, incredibly high standards and objective advice, the future is surely bright for Sarah and her team. In conclusion, Sarah commented,
“We find our joy in placing the right person, in the right role, for the right reasons and in the right way. Of course, we are a business and need to make good business decisions, but it isn’t always about the money. We offer advice, partnership and consultancy to businesses and candidates, going to great lengths to achieve win-win scenarios. That is always where the job satisfaction and client satisfaction lays. It’s not right for me unless everyone wins.”
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos supplied by Grow and Sarah West Recruitment