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Sarah Watts | CEO | Alliance Leisure

Strength in Adversity: Insights and Inspiration from Sarah Watts

Thriving communities boast inclusive leisure facilities, vibrant spaces for all ages and abilities. Laughter mingles with activity, fostering social connection and well-being. Here, health and happiness intertwine with everyday life. This is the vision brought to life by Alliance Leisure, the UK’s leading leisure development specialist. For over 25 years, they’ve been transforming spaces into active environments that nurture health and happiness in everyday life.

Pioneering this transformative path is Sarah Watts, CEO of Alliance Leisure. With her visionary leadership, Sarah has spearheaded numerous projects, each one exemplifies her commitment to thriving communities. From multi-site regeneration ventures to optimizing government funding for sustainability, Sarah’s impact spans far and wide with investments totaling over £370 million.

Sarah’s dedication to community impact and social value is evident in every project she undertakes. Her holistic approach ensures excellence at every stage from scoping to ongoing sustainability. Through her leadership, Alliance Leisure develops spaces and empowers leisure operators with sales, marketing and customer excellence programmes.

As a leader in the industry, Sarah and Alliance Leisure stand as pillars of expertise. With an end-to-end solution for public sector bodies, they streamline the process of scoping, procuring and building sustainable leisure facilities epitomizing efficiency and expertise.

Perseverance and Purpose

Sarah reflects on the pivotal moments that have guided her career journey. “Having my daughters changed me fundamentally as a person,” she shares. Parenthood ignited a newfound sense of purpose, compelling her to seek meaningful pursuits.

Transitioning from small-scale projects to larger endeavors, Sarah found herself at a crossroads when Alliance Leisure embarked on its first major construction venture with Sevenoaks District Council. “It really made me reflect on our journey,” she recalls.

From humble beginnings, navigating challenges with determination and resilience to now overseeing remarkable projects like the £20m Whiteoak Leisure Centre in Kent, Sarah’s trajectory exemplifies the power of perseverance and vision. “If my time was going to be spent away from them, it had to be spent doing something worthy of my time,” she affirms. These experiences have shaped her career path and reaffirmed her commitment to excellence in the leisure industry.

Turning Adversity into Opportunity

Sarah’s journey in the leisure industry is a living example of the transformative power of passion and perseverance. “I’ve benefited hugely from physical activity throughout my life,” she shares, highlighting the personal significance of exercise. Motivated by her experiences and a desire for positive change, Sarah founded Alliance Leisure 25 years ago. Juggling motherhood and consultancy work, she seized opportunities to make a difference in public leisure. “Our original proposition was financial,” she recalls, reflecting on the challenges of introducing innovative funding solutions to hesitant stakeholders.

A pivotal moment arose when a council’s funding for leisure facilities in Kingston upon Hull was abruptly withdrawn. “Someone in the council remembered a mad girl who’d been talking about financing,” Sarah recounts. In a daring move, she stepped in to salvage the development which was marking a turning point for Alliance Leisure. This project exemplifies Sarah’s knack for turning adversity into opportunity.

Sarah’s vision extends past business success. “I want to help ensure that different types of exercise can be made available to everyone,” she emphasizes, advocating for inclusive and accessible fitness opportunities. Moreover, she is committed to nurturing talent, particularly among young women. “When people have talent, it deserves to be nurtured,” Sarah asserts, emphasizing the importance of mentorship and support in career development.

This serves as inspiration for everyone for social change alike. Sarah’s journey underscores the value of resilience, innovation and a steadfast commitment to one’s vision. As she continues to pioneer advancements in the leisure industry, her impact resonates outside the confines of business.

Redefining Limits

Sarah reflects on the challenges of scaling Alliance Leisure to address broader community needs. “One of my biggest challenges was transitioning Alliance Leisure from single site developments to delivery transformation across entire portfolios,” she shares. This shift requires close collaboration with local authorities to align leisure provision with broader place and regeneration agendas.

Expanding the business meant recruiting top talent but also diversifying the supply chain to accommodate projects of varying scales. “I’m now proud that Alliance Leisure can deliver projects of a scale that I never could have foreseen twenty-five years ago,” Sarah remarks.

The challenges Sarah faced and overcame underscore the importance of adaptability and strategic expansion in meeting evolving industry demands. With a dedicated team and a robust supply chain, Alliance Leisure continues to pioneer transformative projects that exceed expectations and drive positive change in communities.

A Well-Rounded Education

Sarah reflects on the enduring impact of her education at Loughborough University. “My education at Loughborough gave me such valuable experiences,” she recalls. The university instilled in her a sense of independence while fostering lasting friendships that continue to shape her professional endeavors.

As a CEO, Sarah emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between independence and relationship-building. “Success as a CEO relies on a good balance of independence and being able to work hard under your own steam alongside being able to make and maintain really strong relationships,” she affirms.

Her passion for leisure was cultivated during her university years and propelled her into the sector. This foundation fueled her interest in sports and paved the way for her to become deeply involved in the leisure industry.

Sarah’s journey reflects the value of both personal growth and professional networking. The lessons learned at Loughborough continue to influence her approach to leadership and collaboration, reinforcing the significance of a well-rounded education in shaping successful careers.

Self-Belief in Action

Sarah reflects on the invaluable lesson she gleaned from her sporting endeavors, particularly Judo. “The greatest thing I learned from sports—Judo in particular is definitely the importance of self-belief,” she shares. Her determination to achieve her black belt at a young age, despite doubts from others, fueled her drive to succeed.

This consistent self-belief extends to her professional life, where Sarah encourages her team to push boundaries and aim higher. “I’m always encouraging my team to push harder and aim higher with their work too,” she affirms. Their bold approach has led to surprising successes, with Alliance Leisure securing contracts that seemed out of reach initially.

This exemplifies the power of self-confidence and perseverance. Her experiences on the Judo mat continue to inform her leadership style inspiring both herself and her team to pursue excellence and overcome challenges with firm determination.

Celebrating Commitment

Sarah likens her approach to nurturing her business and team to that of a mother. “I have always nurtured the business and the team as a mother,” she shares. Drawing from her personal experience, she emphasizes the importance of providing support both professionally and personally.

Flexibility is the foundation of Alliance Leisure’s work culture, allowing individuals to balance their work and personal commitments. “We adopt a very flexible approach to work,” Sarah explains, highlighting the company’s commitment to empowering its team members.

The result of this supportive environment is evident in the long-term dedication of Alliance Leisure’s staff. “Most of our senior team have been with us for over a decade,” Sarah notes proudly. This loyalty is a representation of the company’s reputation as a fair and flexible employer.

Sarah expresses gratitude for her team, describing them as dedicated, hard-working individuals. Their commitment has contributed to Alliance Leisure’s reputation for longevity and stability. Notably, achieving 100% confidence in leadership from every team member is among Sarah’s proudest achievements, as recognized by Investors in People.

Her leadership philosophy reinforces the value of empathy, flexibility and mutual respect in fostering a thriving work environment. As Alliance Leisure continues to grow and evolve, Sarah remains committed to supporting her team and nurturing a culture of success and satisfaction.

Leading with Strength

Sarah reflects on the challenges she faced in a predominantly male-dominated sector. “Particularly in the early days the sector was incredibly male-dominated,” she recalls. As one of the few women in leadership positions, she often found herself overlooked in meetings, despite her expertise.

Despite these obstacles, Sarah remains steadfast in her approach. “Essentially, I don’t diminish myself as a woman or my womanhood in order to fit around a male-centric industry – it’s more like a superpower,” she asserts. Rather than conforming to stereotypes, she embraces her unique perspective and strengths.

Her resilience has paid off, as she now stands as a trailblazer for women in the industry. “Here I am twenty-five years later, with the incredible opportunity to open doors for women in the industry that were firmly shut for me not so long ago,” Sarah reflects.

Prioritizing Family and Well-Being

Sarah reflects on the challenges of balancing motherhood with the demands of Alliance Leisure. “Ironically, I left my role at Bristol City Council to dedicate more time to the family, but once Alliance Leisure became established, the demands of the business on my time put incredible stress on my role as a mother,” she shares. Despite the difficulties, Sarah managed to maintain a semblance of balance, making sacrifices along the way.

I’ve had to make sacrifices along the way,” she acknowledges. Sarah recalls missing some of her daughters’ school productions and working late into the night after they were asleep. However, her daughters affirm that they always felt like a priority.

Now that her daughters have left home, Sarah prioritizes self-care. “I still find it’s really important to make time to take care of myself – whether that be by exercising or enjoying a cocktail or two!” she affirms. As she navigates the demands of work and personal life, Sarah suggests this as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing both family and self-care amidst professional responsibilities.

Empowering Health and Happiness

Sarah reflects on Alliance Leisure’s journey of innovation and adaptation in the ever-evolving landscape of leisure. “The landscape of leisure has changed astronomically since Alliance Leisure first began,” she notes. Anticipating shifts and trends, the company has stayed abreast of innovations and also driven them forward.

A pivotal moment occurred in 2004 when the PWLB devolved borrowing responsibility to local authorities, reshaping funding dynamics. “We had to really quickly evolve, becoming a development partner,” Sarah recalls. This shift led Alliance Leisure to pioneer the concept of development partnerships, revolutionizing the industry.

Continuing to push boundaries, Alliance Leisure introduced diverse facilities like spas, ten-pin bowling and high ropes into the public sector. “We continue to bring the newest and most sought-after products to our clients,” Sarah emphasizes. Collaboration with a shifting supply chain ensures ongoing innovation and relevance.

Today, Alliance Leisure goes beyond revenue-focused projects, focusing on social needs and sustainability. Sarah explains that Alliance Leisure repurposes, remodels and develops new wellness facilities. The company offers comprehensive advisory services from facility feasibility to scoping the art of the possible.

Looking ahead, Sarah envisions a health-focused future for the leisure sector. “I’ve set up a ‘health supergroup’ to embed health-related programming across the sector,” she reveals. This initiative reflects Alliance Leisure’s commitment to advancing community well-being and driving positive change in the industry.

The Power of Collaboration

Sarah emphasizes the importance of fostering genuine relationships and delivering top-quality work. “It ultimately comes down to fostering a genuinely friendly and collaborative relationship whilst delivering the highest standard of work possible,” she explains. This approach has been integral to Alliance Leisure’s success.

When identifying talent for their team, Sarah prioritizes individuals who can cultivate strong client relationships. “The capability to create that relationship is what we look out for most when we spot talent,” she notes. This emphasis on collaboration has led to longstanding partnerships with some local authorities spanning over two decades.

Currently, Alliance Leisure is spearheading a transformative project with Durham County Council. “We are developing and building a whole host of facilities (five so far) as part of a £100m+ transformation programme,” Sarah reveals. This ambitious initiative is set to revolutionize fitness provision in the county, showcasing the impact of collaborative partnerships and high-quality workmanship.

Staying Strong

Sarah encourages women to embrace their strengths and remain resilient. “Own your strengths and don’t let people dim your light and your courage,” she advises. Recognizing the uniqueness and capabilities of women is crucial.

Despite challenges, Sarah emphasizes the importance of perseverance. “Keep working hard, even when times are tough,” she urges. Balancing hard work with enjoyment is crucial for maintaining well-being and resilience.

Her words serve as a reminder for all readers to remain steadfast in their pursuits, celebrate their achievements and prioritize self-care amidst life’s demands.