‘Life’s about grabbing every moment’

Sandy Hopkins
Sandy Hopkins
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She’s undoubtedly one of the most influential women in Hampshire.

As the chief executive of both Havant and East Hampshire councils, Sandy Hopkins oversees a population of around 230,000.

But who is the woman behind the friendly face seen in the council magazine?

As I discover, she is a dynamic, fun-loving woman with a tigerish attitude to all aspects of life – and a woman whose education has, quite literally, been the world.

As I meet Sandy at The Plaza in Havant, she’s clearly on a high.

The day before she walked Princess Anne through the £13m ultra-modern civic centre that is now home to around 700 workers across a range of public services.

We don’t sit in Sandy’s office as she hasn’t actually got one.

Since 2009, when she became joint chief executive, she has been working in an open-plan office with her colleagues around her.

Sandy says not being able to shut the door is liberating.

‘I don’t have an office – that’s quite freeing in a way,’ she says.

‘Initially that was quite worrying – I kept wheeling around this great big suitcase of paperwork.

‘It was a transition period where I was travelling between two organisations and you’re not sure which files you are going to need.’

So let’s rewind the clock.

Sandy was born in the 1960s in Iran as her father was working out there.

A few years later, her family returned to England, where she grew up in Surrey and Hampshire.

She says she definitely considers herself a ‘Hampshire Hog’.

‘I came from a family of people who had trades,’ explains Sandy.

‘My grandad was a plumber, mum was a hairdresser. I think I was the first person in my family to go on and do a degree.’

One of her biggest personal achievements was getting her masters’ degree in business.

‘I wasn’t that great at school,’ she says.

‘So getting a masters’ degree was a big achievement at a personal level.

‘I needed to prove to myself I could do it because I failed half my exams when I did my O-levels.

‘It would have been easy to walk away from that and not carry on.

‘I’m a really strong believer in education and a strong supporter of training and development.

‘You should never work on the basis you’ve learnt everything.’

Sandy dreamed of travelling the world as an air hostess as a child, but was warned off it by careers advisers at school.

She got her first job working for Hertz rent-a-car at Heathrow Airport.

Her get-up-and-go attitude led her to walking into the Tourist Information Centre in Winchester one day and making a bold, perhaps life-changing, statement.

Sandy says: ‘I said “I’ll come and work for you for nothing because I want the experience”.’

After learning the ropes as an intern, Sandy realised she couldn’t afford it long-term and went to work for the British Oxygen Company.

But she had clearly made an impression. An opportunity arose to become a marketing assistant for Winchester council and Sandy grabbed it with both hands.

So began her career in public service, as she promoted Winchester to the world.

By the mid-90s, Sandy had an experience that would change her view of that world forever.

She explains: ‘In the 90s, at the height of the Bosnian-Croatian war, there was an opportunity to do an aid convoy.

‘The question is do you do that and put yourself in danger?

‘With a couple of other people, we raised enough money to buy a clapped-out minibus and filled the minibus with food and equipment and we took it out there.

‘It was a really important turning-point. There was a lot of camaraderie, but a lot of sadness and tears as well.

‘You go out somewhere where people had cars, had homes, had jobs and went to school.

‘All of that was taken away – you see the shots in the walls, the bullet holes.

‘I could hear the bombs going off and the firing. It was weird phoning home and my family hearing shells in the background.’

In a single enlightening moment, Sandy realised how fragile everything around us is.

She says: ‘You make an assumption – you put all your trust in leaders, in politicians, in people. You see how fragile that trust can be because a whole society were pawns in a war.

‘That fragility makes you realise you should grab every moment. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’

Sandy’s independent streak continued when she took a career break in the 90s, travelling the world on her own and visiting Africa, India, south east Asia, Australasia and the Americas.

She visited local tribes several times during her travels.

‘I did not have a mobile phone or internet or anything,’ she says.

‘Correspondence was by post so people did not hear from me.

‘I got into some interesting situations – stuck in the middle of nowhere in Australia in the middle of the night. A bus dropped me off because that’s where I said I wanted to go!

‘They say those sorts of things can be character-building.’

Working her way up the local government ladder, Sandy started at Havant Borough Council in 2001 as director of community services. In 2007 she became the chief executive for Havant.

Asked what it’s like being a woman in her role, she laughs: ‘I don’t know because I don’t know what it’s like being a man!

‘I just consider myself a human. Is that weird?

‘There’s a lot of really successful people in the world and a lot of them are women.

‘It probably would have been a lot harder in some other countries in the world, such as Iran.

‘I was born in Iran in the 60s and they were more liberal than they are now.’

Sandy is passionate about every employee being just as important as anyone else in her organisation, from the cleaners, to the refuse collectors, to the planning officers.

She says: ‘No-one’s part is more important than anyone else’s – it’s just a different role.

‘I wish I could get organisations to believe that as well. Sometimes organisations create hierarchies and think they are more important.

‘If you were to ask me the question “What annoys you the most?” It’s people who think they are more important than other people.

‘In certain situations, everyone is more important than everyone else.’

For Sandy, the glass is always half full and she spends so much time getting the most out of life that she only needs six hours’ sleep a day.

Of course, she admits she has ‘bad days’ like everyone else, but she squeezes every last drop she can from the nectar of life.

She laughs: ‘My brother-in-law says to me “You seem to have two days where everyone else has one day”. That’s his joke.

‘I have known to be asleep standing up on a train in India. I have slept through an earthquake in Japan.’

Her determined, but methodical, approach to life was demonstrated recently in a dalliance with bread-making.

‘I have got a bread maker,’ says Sandy.

‘I was trying to create this sourdough bread.

‘I don’t how many loaves I made, but eventually I got my sourdough!’