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Interview with Sarah Stowe, Managing Director, WillisPalmer

Two things shine through Sarah Stowe’s working career. People are everything to Sarah when it comes to her work life. She finds herself automatically drawn to working for entrepreneurial people with larger than life personalities and her team is paramount. Not only does she invest heavily in her team, playing a massive role supporting and mentoring them, she strongly believes that everyone has a skill to bring to the table and it is part of her role to bring that out in people. Sarah is also keen to incorporate a bit of fun into office life with the thinking that we all spend so much time at work, it should be a nice environment and enjoyable place to be.

Secondly, whatever rank Sarah joins a company at and no matter the position, somehow she ends up managing the organisation from her first job at a swag shop which turned into a jewellers where she began in a Saturday job role but resulted in her managing a chain of jewellers in Essex to her current role at WillisPalmer where she started as Business Administrator working part-time to running the business when she was appointed as Managing Director in 2019.

Mark Willis, Chief Executive of WillisPalmer has previously recognised Sarah’s talents, saying: “I have to give credit to Sarah as managing director. She nurtures our team which is a huge strength. People are loyal to Sarah as she genuinely cares about our staff.”

Del-Boy

As a child, Sarah had her heart set on a career either as an air hostess or working on a beauty counter. As she approached school leaving age, Sarah wanted to go to secretarial college, but felt it was important to go out to work and pay rent to her grandparents with whom she lived. Her grandad had been in the Army but, having retired, he worked at a local swag shop helping the owner out with whatever he needed.

Sarah’s grandad introduced her to the owner of the swag shop, Eddie, who was “a real Del-Boy type of person from the East End of London, a larger than life character who was absolutely fascinating” and Sarah started out as a Saturday girl helping out.

Eddie, was self-taught and his entrepreneurial streak meant he always had something on the go. Initially when Sarah met him he was running amusements and arcades alongside the swag shop, he then started running greyhound racing tracks, then learnt to horse ride and began entering dressage competitions before teaching himself to sail.

Eddie also decided that he would reinvent himself as a jeweller manufacturing fine jewellery and they opened a shop selling Eddie’s work along with other designs they bought in. Sarah’s grandad continued to work at the jewellers helping out and keeping an eye on the business for Eddie and Sarah ran the shop for him which branched out into three businesses.

A huge family man, Eddie’s daughters also worked at the jewellers and Sarah loved working with them and enjoyed all the different aspects of retail. The shop was always full of jewellers selling the latest ranges to Eddie, customers, people trying their luck shop-lifting, which Eddie soon put an end to by training a massive Alsatian dog for protection who would be tied to the safe and who Sarah would have to negotiate with every time she needed to access the safe for jewellery or cash for the tills.

“There was a real market trade atmosphere among the community of shop owners in the area and I met some real characters,” said Sarah.

At one point, she decided to join the jewellery chain Ratners but didn’t enjoy it and returned to working for Eddie. In fact, she left several times but kept returning such was the allure of Eddie and the shops.

Selling advertising

Sarah finally made a more permanent move to work for a free newspaper selling advertising space where she worked for another “amazing character”.

“Filling a blank page with advertisements in a paper that people didn’t want to receive was not easy,” said Sarah, but adds that her manager made everyday fun and an enjoyable place to work.

“It was hard work but it was fun. I try and incorporate a bit of that here at WillisPalmer so everyone feels part of a friendly and supportive team,” she said. Sarah worked with a woman who had three sisters and while selling ad space and she would often regale Sarah with stories of how she had fallen out with each sister depending on the week as their allegiances swapped.

Sarah went from there to another publishing company in Colchester, again selling advertising space. It was then that Sarah discovered that she was pregnant with her son and, as maternity rights were not as firmly embedded as they are today, she was concerned that she would lose her job. Sarah had clearly made an impression though as her manager assured her that her job would be safe and Sarah returned to the company three months after having Lawrence. She was assigned to a different publication and her manager had small children and so was all too aware of the pressure and also very understanding. Sarah stayed there for around five years, working for a variety of different titles and really enjoyed the work. However, the work really required a full-time person and Sarah felt it wasn’t fair for her to do it in part-time hours but at that stage didn’t want to increase her hours as Lawrence had only just started school. The firm didn’t want to let Sarah go but she decided it wasn’t fair on them and decided to leave.

A challenge

From there, Sarah joined a local branch of a national estate agents who wanted to set up a 24 hour mortgage helpline. Initially Sarah wasn’t successful in her application as the other person in the running could work more hours so they took her on. However, she lasted less than a week and the company called Sarah and said they could work round her part-time hours and use an out-of-office system for the hours she couldn’t cover.

“The girl before me had left one black notebook with a few lines of what she was planning to do with the helpline. That’s all I had. But thankfully I like a challenge!” said Sarah.

Sarah worked at the head office for a few years in a variety of roles including marketing, training, financial services, but in the end she left due to corporate back-stabbing.

She was about to start work in a local hospital, but while the job sounded interesting, she had reservations about the person she would be working alongside. With people being such a key element of Sarah’s enjoyment of working life, she trusted her gut instinct and went back to looking for jobs. In the classified adverts, there was an advert that Mark Willis and Andre Palmer had put into the newspaper, searching for someone to help run their office as they had set up an independent social work organisation.

Sarah called Mark and was interviewed by both Mark and Andre, and she knew immediately that she wanted to work with them. “They were good people who wanted to make a difference, they were good fun, there was no office politics and there was nothing tedious about the role as there was so much to do,” recalls Sarah.

“At this time, they had just moved from Andre’s shed to a small office, the invoices were a mess and needed organising and so I started working for them part-time. They were undertaking the social work assessments and I ran the office, then we moved to a larger office, then they advertised for independent social workers to come and work with us carrying out assessments as the work started to grow, and then they took on a few more, and it began to snowball,” she explains.

The team come first

Sarah is adamant that the team should be happy in a nice working environment. “People should not be treated badly in the workplace, we achieve different things as a team as we all bring different skills. But whatever role I’ve been in, I always end up managing people!” said Sarah.

Her role changed over the years from administrator, to taking referrals and agreeing work, to managing the office until she was made Managing Director in 2019. Sarah is now responsible for running the business, managing money and cash flow, recruiting, managing the team, working with the finance team and HR, problem solving as well as mentoring and developing staff.

“I don’t come first. The team do. I like people to feel valued and appreciate people’s differences as we all contribute something different,” said Sarah.

Having vowed never to work with friends and family again after the hilarious but somewhat fraught state of affairs in advertising keeping peace among the warring sisters, Sarah has done something of a U-turn employing sisters and mother and daughter at WillisPalmer.

“Business Administrator Chloe Bach and Case Manager Holly Green are sisters. I employed Holly’s friend Rachel Holt as Referrals Manager and Rachel’s daughter Sophie Bartholomew is our apprentice while studying to become a level 3 Business Administrator. Eavan Taylor-Willis, Mark’s daughter, worked full-time for WillisPalmer last year as Business Administrator and now works for us one day a week combining college and work experience as well,” adds Sarah.

WillisPalmer has also been a very flexible employee even before COVID and whereas many other organisations have now upped their game in terms of offering flexibility in response to a rise in working from home due to the pandemic, this has always been the case at WillisPalmer.

“We might not be highest payer but we really value a good work/life balance which is important to our team. Whether that is working from home or adapting hours to accommodate school runs and childcare. We pride ourselves on being flexible”.

Talking to people

Naturally, Sarah has seen some huge changes at WillisPalmer since she started working there. Starting off with Mark and Andre in their first small office shortly after they had vacated the shed whereas no there is 11 staff members with the main office based at the University of Essex campus.

The first major challenge was the decision by the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to cap the fees of independent social workers (ISWs) who provide reports and evidence to the courts to £30 per hour outside the capital and £33 per hour in London from October 2010, in a bid to reduce the legal aid budget. At the time other expert witnesses such as psychologists were entitled to up to £100 per hour.

WillisPalmer campaigned with other organisations against the change, but instead sought to establish contracts with local authorities to provide independent social work services. Prior to the fee cap, 75% of WillisPalmer cases came through the Legal Aid Agency but following the cap, 85% comes directly from local authorities.

“It has also been a challenge to get social workers viewed as experts in the same way that other professionals such as psychiatrists are, that certainly made our job harder,” said Sarah.

“It’s also really difficult to talk to people these days as there has been a cultural shift towards people contacting us by email rather than phone. I think you can connect with someone so much better on the phone than on email and you can ensure the tone is right whereas on email it can be open to interpretation. I personally find you can solve things much quicker over the phone rather than to-ing and fro-ing on email.”

In fact, her early days in telesales has made Sarah a passionate advocate for using the phone to contact people rather than firing off an email, and she fears it is a skill that will be lost.

“In telesales, you have to make that first connection and you have a very short window to make a successful connection. I feel sad that it is a skill that will be lost. Everyone uses emails today. Sometimes here the phone doesn’t ring all day as so much of our work comes in via an email. People think it’s quicker to email but I disagree. I think sometimes, you can end up going backwards and forwards via email clarifying information whereas on the phone it’s done in one hit. Talking to customers on the phone is a real skill as you are listening to what they are saying and also what they are not saying,” she adds.

Further challenges, along with other organisations around the country, has been operating safely during COVID and as well as establishing longevity within the sector.

Patience

Sarah attributes her rise from business administrator to managing director as her career highlight and says she has learned that “nothing is insurmountable”.

“What I’ve learned from Mark over the years is to firstly think ‘what can we learn from this?’ and ‘what could we have done better?’ and ‘how can we improve?’ As a result, we are constantly re-evaluating things which is good to do as it means we are constantly re-inventing ourselves,” said Sarah.

Citing patience and negotiation as her key strengths, Sarah concludes: “In 2022, we will be building on and embedding our multi-disciplinary approach further to offer multi-disciplinary solutions to families who are struggling and who have encountered hardship, particularly during COVID.”

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