Sarah Purdham is someone who has always had an entrepreneurial streak. "When I was a little girl I was always thinking of ways to make money,” she remembers. “I had hamsters and I used to sell baby hamsters and guinea pigs to pet shops. I also had horses, so sometimes I'd buy one and break it in and sell it. I used to travel up to Scotland, buy cars from auctions, do a little bit of work on them and sell them for a profit. “I just got used to making my own way in life by making money.”

Today it is not hamsters or horses Sarah is selling but a service, namely expert project planning and controls from her consultancy Prima Uno, a company which has been so successful under her leadership that she was named the in-Cumbria Business Awards 2021 Businessperson of the Year in November. Born in Frizington, Sarah, 45, initially harboured ambitions of following in the footsteps of mum Elenor, who was a nurse at West Cumberland Hospital and also ran her own care agency. However, after going to Frizington County Primary School and the former Ehenside School, in Cleator Moor, she eventually followed dad David into working at Sellafield. "I used to like caring for people but I'm squeamish when it comes to things like blood,” she says. “It's no good being a fainter if you want to be a nurse.”

Sarah started her career as a technical clerk in the works control centre at Sellafield, but also began completing her qualifications in cost engineering, eventually becoming a planning engineer and planning and cost consultant at the site. She went onto work as a project planning consultant with United Utilities, overseeing the construction and refurbishment of wastewater and water treatment plants in Cumbria. “I loved that, it was one of my favourite jobs,” she says. “Some of them were in such beautiful parts of the county. I loved doing the construction side of planning because you can see projects through from the very beginning to the end.” After a brief return to Sellafield, Sarah moved to London to work on major infrastructure projects, including as a project controls engineer on the construction of terminal five at Heathrow, the biggest building site in Europe at the time.

She also worked as a planning engineer for Transport for London on projects for the Underground worth several billions. "That was where I got a lot of major experience," she says. "I got involved in live project controls, being an expert witness, adjudication and arbitration, working on big delay claims for huge projects. “When I moved to London I had a project manager that used to say 'Sarah, I wish I could find 10 of you' because I always wanted to do a really good job and the best that I could do to my ability. I want to always deliver excellence and make people happy.” During her time in London Sarah was always researching and planning how she could set up her own business. When she became pregnant with her daughter Estelle, she and husband Rob moved back up to West Cumbria in October 2011. “After having Estelle I did think about getting a job but I thought that I couldn’t because I had put so much work into planning the business,” she says. “I knew I could do it and I wanted to make a difference.” And so, in September 2012, she began Prima Uno in a converted bedroom in her house and was soon joined by her friend Helen Carty who helped with administration and is now the company’s finance manager.

From the start Sarah says she saw an opportunity to prosper in the planning and programming sector by engaging highly trained and skilled experts with a focus on delivering the best for their clients. "I knew Prima Uno would have transferable skills across the UK and multiple sectors, because I had a lot of multi-sector experience myself,” she says. "Joining the Britain's Energy Coast Business Cluster was massive for me, because you've got so many clients in one room and it's up to you to build relationships.” The company soon moved from Sarah’s bedroom to spend two years in business incubation pods at Westlakes Science Park and then into Phoenix Court, Cleator Moor. It now has new offices back at Westlakes Science Park, as well as satellite offices in Warrington and London. The business employs people who are skilled in everything including planning, estimating, cost engineering and project controls. In very simple terms, Sarah and the team use their expertise to work with major projects and ensure they run on time and to budget. Their work covers sectors from nuclear and major infrastructure projects to oil and gas and transport, with clients including the likes of the Low Level Waste Repository, at Drigg, Direct Rail Services, in Carlisle, and the 2012 Olympics. They are also engaged to give their expert opinion in legal disputes arising from projects which have gone awry in one way or another.

Prima Uno now employs 30 people, with three new starters taken on at the end of last year. "Because our reputation has grown we have a lot of people contacting us to ask if we've got any positions available,” says Sarah, who adds the business will be looking to take on more employees this year including in recruitment and business development. "I surround myself with good people,” says Sarah. “All the people that work at Prima Uno follow our mission. They share the same values and behaviours. Technically, we're absolutely fantastic and we're up there with the best, but they're lovely down to earth people as well and it's like a big family. We want to deliver an exceptional service but we also want to be nice people to work with.”

As a company in which an essential pillar of the business involves anticipating risk, Prima Uno always had contingency plans in place for staff to work remotely. These plans became a reality in March last year as the country went into lockdown, with the company continuing its work throughout the pandemic. “I was able to tell all our clients that we’d be able to continue with their projects and to let all the staff know we’d be able to continue paying them,” says Sarah. This year the company also supported workers through IR35 changes to rules around tax for off-payroll contractors, guiding them through the process, setting up an umbrella company to take some on and employing others as permanent members of staff. "I don't care how people choose to be paid, no-one is more or less important than anyone else, they're all our people,” says Sarah. “We did a lot of work to communicate with people and inform them what situation they’d be in afterwards and how they’d be affected. I wanted to support my people and make life as stress-free as possible.”

Despite the demands of growing the business, Sarah has always been determined to be an active and present mum for “the light of her life” Estelle, who is 10. “I never wanted to miss out on bringing my daughter up and I always aim to be there to pick her up from school and put her to bed. Prima Uno is doing very, very well but I’ve never wanted to sacrifice time with my little girl.” Sarah, Rob and Estelle live on his family farm in Gosforth with their three dogs. Sarah has ridden and owned horses all her life, including riding as a competitive show jumper, and began breeding them during the pandemic, bringing the total she now owns to 12. She says she is never happier than when riding in the valleys and on the beaches of West Cumbria or out running with her dogs. "When you have an intense business it's good to have something you can do which is pure escapism," she says. “I love Ennerdale and Blengdale Forest. My idea of heaven is walking around Ennerdale Lake with one of my best friends because I was born in West Cumbria and I spent so many summers there swimming. I used to go and wake my friend Rachael up by throwing stones at her bedroom window and we’d get a horse each and a couple of dogs and go off to Ennerdale and swim with the horses.” The horse breeding project is part of the wider diversification of the couple’s farming activities. Rob, a former professional rugby league player for Harlequins, runs the family farm as well as a farm contracting business. Sarah says she plans to breed high quality show jumping and competition horses and the couple also want to build camping barns and pods. “We want them to have a low carbon footprint, harvest rainwater and things like that and make it more sustainable as a farming business,” she says. Her plans are for Prima Uno to continue growing as well, potentially opening new offices around the country as it takes on more clients. “We would like to expand across the country and into areas like the North East and we’ve proved we can work remotely and whatever the project we can do it,” she says. "We're really diversifying and we've got a wonderful pipeline of targeted opportunities for 2022."