Employee development and recognition at the heart of Sanctuary Personnel - EADT’s Business of the Year 2017

Team membesr at Sanctuary Personnel L-R Marc Bradbury,James Rook, Sarah Read O'Toole, Kellie Thornd

Team membesr at Sanctuary Personnel L-R Marc Bradbury,James Rook, Sarah Read O'Toole, Kellie Thorndyke, Redwan Miah,Andrew Pirie, Craig Davis. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

All business success stories are about a journey – and it’s been quite a trip for specialist recruitment group Sanctuary Personnel, which earlier this month was named Business of the Year at the EADT Business Awards.

Sanctuary Personnel employees enjoy some downtime

Sanctuary Personnel employees enjoy some downtime

In just 11 years, Sanctuary, which is a major supplier of staff to the social work, healthcare and criminal justice sectors, has gone from a company of eight people to employing more than 250 people at its offices in Ipswich.

But as impressive as the business’ growth, is the fact that those original eight members are all still with the company today.

“Continuity is hugely important in any business and particularly in an area like recruitment,” explained managing director James Rook.

“It’s very disappointing for a client to call up on Monday morning to be told: ‘Sorry, the person you’ve been dealing with for the last two years, who understands your qualifications, your ambitions and family circumstances, has left - but there’s someone else here to help you.’


“Relationships and continuity with our clients is paramount.”


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But staff retention also has other benefits, according to Mr Rook.

“When someone new joins the business it’s inspiring for them to sit next to a colleague whose been here eight or nine years and seen their career progress,” he added.

Mr Rook gives some examples of people who have progressed through the Sanctuary ranks, such as the current head of IT who joined as an apprentice at the age of 17 and now runs the whole IT division and has just bought his first house. The head of payroll, likewise started as an apprentice seven or eight years ago.

With rousing examples such as these, it is little wonder Sanctuary also won The Youth Pledge category at the EADT Business Awards, which recognises organisations helping young people into work. It also picked up the Large Business award, for firms with a turnover of more than £5m, before being selected for the top honour.

Mr Rook says at the heart of the business’s success is a commitment to staff development and a focus on recognising and rewarding good performance.

“When I first started Sanctuary and I needed some administrative support, I put out an advert and I got 70-odd responses,” he continued.

“But I found it quite sad when I came to do the interviews: people were asking me about the sick pay, the hours of work and how much holiday they would get. These were the first questions they were asking - it seemed they weren’t massively in love with the career they’d chosen.

He added: “People were saying they had 30 years’ experience but it seemed to me they just had six months’ experience and they’d done it 60 times over. It was clear they’d become bored but needed to do it to pay a mortgage or whatever it might be.”


Mr Rook wanted something different. He wanted aspirational people, who regardless of what qualifications or experience they had, were motivated and passionate.

“So, I started an apprenticeship programme 10 years ago before it became the fashionable thing to do,” he said.

“And it brought a lot of people with fantastic IT skills into the business, they also had a lot of energy that comes from winning your first job.”

“You can have a lot of educated people and experienced people, but if they’re not passionate about what they do and don’t understand where their career is going, then it becomes a bit like being on a treadmill.”

The company’s support of young people has seen it put over 40 people through apprenticeships in areas such as business administration, accountancy, management, marketing, IT and customer service. It is now looking at how it can start to deliver apprenticeships in social work and nursing to train more people for the sector it services.

“We don’t get everything right, but I feel we’re honest about our strengths and weaknesses and that allows us to improve in areas where we’re not functioning so well,” continued Mr Rook.

“It’s about mentoring people and maybe trying them out in different roles within the business to help them realise they can achieve a lot more than they necessarily thought they could. We’ve got a lot of people who may not have been number one in the classroom, but actually, have got some amazing other skill sets.

“One of the most satisfying things is igniting something in someone that later on means they become exceptional in what they do. I’ve seen people come into the company who’ve had very little confidence and two years later, they are excelling.”

He added: “If you feel a sense of satisfaction in your job and your performance is recognised and you’re supported, then you start to get people in what I call ‘the good circle of life’ where you’re rewarded and then inspired to work harder, which means you get greater opportunity and greater reward going forward and that’s the aim we have for everybody.”


For Mr Rook, recognition of staff’s achievements is an important aspect of his business.

At Sanctuary, this comes in the form of small things, such as saying well done and getting a mention in the company newsletter, as well as the more unusual, such as paying for trips to Tobago and the famous Icehotel in Sweden, or funding a jet ski licence.

Another example, is the company’s summer raffle, where a range of prizes are up for grabs and managers are empowered to reward good work by giving employees tickets.

It seems working at Sanctuary can be a lot of fun.

There are break out areas at the company where people can play table tennis and video games, while at Christmas, a “I’m a consultant, get me out of here!” competition is held where staff members are invited to eat something horrible in return for £100 and a day off Christmas shopping.

“We try to make it as much as possible a fun place, so people can enjoy being here but still have the professionalism to know that it is a workplace,” said Mr Rook.

And ultimately, it’s the serious nature of the work that underpins the business that ensures a high level of professionalism is maintained.

As well as providing staff for local authorities and the NHS, the group has a service delivery arm called Skylakes, which delivers child social work throughout the UK. This side of the business is growing.

“We saw there were ways we could improve the ways services are delivered, said Mr Rook.

“Through technology and investment we were able to get some efficiencies but most importantly to produce some amazing work. We are directly saving children’s lives. That knowledge brings with it professionalism but it also means it is more than a job and it brings huge rewards.

He added: “Yes, we are a commercial, privately-owned business but we invest money back into the company and that is enabling us to make a significant difference to children across the country.”