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“Be brave and just do it…what’s the worse that can happen?!” | An interview with Sarah Banks

“Be brave and just do it…what’s the worse that can happen?!” | An interview with Sarah Banks

business entrepreneur women in business Oct 28, 2020

Welcome Sarah Banks, Cambridge Chapter Lead for Agriculture and Food. Sarah is the Group Head of QEHS and Regulatory Affairs for Volac Internation Ltd. Sarah attended the 6 Week Course: The Monday Revolution: Seize control of your business life in September, and luckily for us, she absolutely loved the course and decided to join the Rising Network as a Chapter Lead! Get to know our new Cambridge Chapter Lead by reading Sarah’s blog below. We warmly welcome you Sarah to the Rising Network.


Tell us about the work that you do and what led you onto this career path?

I took an early interest in the natural world and food and farming. I was lucky to move to the Lake District from London when I was six, my father, a Chartered Engineer had a new job as factory manager for GEC in their Maryport factory. My eldest brother had a dairy intolerance and we bought a small holding which enabled us to have horses and goats. I took an interest in everything, fascinated in the seasons and the lambs and calves being born and raised. I earnt pocket money by helping the local farmers and started a little business selling the surplus goat’s milk to the local health shop (age 10). I changed school 3 times over O ‘Levels and A ‘Levels (due to redundancy, moving and my father changing jobs).
I decided to follow my interest in Business and food/farming and studied for a degree in Agriculture. I still believe today this has been the strong foundation for my career, as my early practical work, long hours, and interest in business, together with a strong understanding of the science behind food production and managing a Business helped me to deeply understand the foundation of the industry I was interested in.

Part of my degree included a year in Industry, where I worked for the National Trust, developing the farm park. Here I won the award for the highest achieving student on placement (100% for both projects and my employer assessment). I joined the Young Farmers movement during this year and honed my debating skills competing nationally at the final of the UK competition. I also met my husband during this year, and I knew I was destined to be here in Cambridge! I still had great passion to make a difference to the food and farming industry and joined Volac in 1995.

Volac International Ltd, a family owned company, employs approx. 350 people and manufactures milk replacers for young animals; produces freeze dried bacteria for agricultural silage inoculants applications, a feed fats factory producing a innovative rumen- protected fat to add to dairy cow rations, two milk replacer blending plants  and a large dairy processing factory where we manufacture a range of food ingredient specialist proteins and isolates together with Lactose all of which are sold to large food processing customers (Nestle, Mars etc.).

I started as Technical and Marketing Assistant and took an early interest in quality and technical applications of our products. I have worked in R & D, Technical Sales, Technical & Business Quality management. As a relatively small company originally (£50m turnover) I have been lucky to be an integral part of the team taking us to the £300m turnover we are today. I am now the Group Head of Quality, Environment, Energy, Health, Safety, Trade Compliance and Regulatory Affairs and am responsible for these functions across our 6 sites.  I am also responsible for the company Risk and Crisis Management and currently chair the company Crisis Management Executive Team and the Supply Chain Crisis Team.


Tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.

Establishing a group wide ISO9001 programme and multi-site certification and designing and implementing a new QEHS function within the company to support the growth of the Business to manage the increasing regulatory complexity and compliance.


What advice would you give someone starting in your field of work?

For me, it is to really understand your Business and have passion for what you do. By learning literally at ‘grass roots’ this gave me a deep understanding and empathy for our customers and this has never left me. I see the big picture and I keep this front of mind when I am implementing strategic programmes to drive improvements in the quality of the products we produce and ensure I give each person I interact with the support, training and encouragement they need to succeed.


What do you think is the most significant barrier to women in business and leadership?

It is a challenge to balance home and family and how this is perceived within the Business.

I know only too well as I have four beautiful daughters and a farm business at home. On a farm it is not possible for my husband to ‘take the day off’ for childcare and so I bore the brunt of this and had to work very hard to keep my position at work. I was often overlooked when I was ‘part-time’, even though projects were completed on time and finished to a high standard.
I believe women, given the chance to work flexibly, are the most productive. The trust I build with my female reports has resulted in their outstanding performance and development. The close trust has meant that I have built a high performing team and I afford the same to the men and women in my team which has paid back tenfold.


Who is your female role model, and why?

This is probably my own mother as she taught me to be brave and allowed me to push myself outside of my comfort zone from a very young age. She would let me dream…and I would dream big, never squashing my imagination 




What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

You are capable of more than you think! I went through a number of life events growing up and into my adulthood, all of which I could do nothing about, so I developed great resilience and a very positive attitude to change. You realise that the lessons that are learnt through failure lead to success and a great strength.


What do you do for self-care?

I run every weekday before work and get my head into the right place before I start the day! I also try to keep my boundaries for work and home clear (although I do admit I find this difficult!). The girls know when I have booked off time to be available for them and I always make sure I honour my commitments to them. In return, they respect my work time and are thoughtful towards helping support me, we have a achieved a mutual trust and reward. I also make sure I make time to walk with my friends when I can and do Zumba twice a week – I find dancing very therapeutic to clear away a stressful day at work!


Please give us a quote on why you decided to join the Rising Network as a member and how you feel the network will support you/your organisation.

I joined the Rising Network to reach out to other professional women to gain insight into different Businesses and make a difference to others by sharing my knowledge and ‘life lessons’ helping others to feel as empowered as I do. To give support and coaching and enjoy the benefits of becoming more visible outside of my organisation…and making some new friends too along the way!


Please provide a quote on what it means to you to become a Chapter Lead representing the Rising Network and supporting the growth of the network?

I am delighted to become a Chapter Lead and look forward to meeting many of your members. It is a privilege to share my knowledge and insights with this amazing group of dynamic women and help provide that safe space to help each member grow and achieve their ambitions.


Please let us know what help/advice are you seeking within the network and what is your biggest challenge(s) you would like to overcome?

I am looking to spread my wings and leave the comfort of the Company I have been in for my whole career (if you can call it ‘comfy’ as I work a 60 hour week!). I wish to become a Director and would like to join a Board as a non-exec member. My current company has no female Exec or Board Members…I may be 70 before this happens there and I have another 20 years in my professional career yet, so time to take some of my own advice and make new things happen! I am also considering starting my own business…

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