The personal chemistry that built a training powerhouse

Sue Pittock and Rob Foulston, the duo with a remit for excellence

I’m quite happy to stick my head above the parapet and talk about the things I’m passionate about

The formidable duo leading Remit Training, chief executive Sue Pittock and her chair Rob Foulston, are currently riding high after what Pittock sees as the best year of her career in 2023.

Pittock scooped an OBE in January, Remit got top ‘outstanding’ marks from Ofsted for the first time in the summer, then the company finished the year with a platinum Investors in People accreditation.

Pittock has always lobbied hard for her sector, and last month was elected to serve on the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ board. Its constitution does not allow two people from the same organisation on the board, so Foulston, who had been AELP’s vice chair, stepped down to enable her to step up.

Foulston is, he says, “very happy to let Sue take the spotlight”. He describes their professional relationship as “amazing”, despite the pair being “completely different”.

Foulston describes Pittock as “really bubbly” and “super bright” – which he says, “catches people out all the time”, as well as “very vocal”. She “really enjoys lobbying”, whereas he is “a little quieter” and “definitely more serious”.

Foulston also has plenty else to occupy his time, as he is also chair of South Thames Colleges Group. He has learned through doing both chair roles that while colleges are hardly “awash with cash, the difference is quite stark” with ITPs, who are “very much being treated as secondary to colleges”.

“We have to fight for every penny,” says Foulston.

Rob Foulston and Sue Pittock with AELPs chief executive Ben Rowland centre

Life on the Remit road

Pittock talks to me whilst sporting a Paddington Bear jumper, in between attempts to prevent her golden doodle Oakley (who is “full on” personality-wise) from chewing household ornaments.

Today she is working from her home in Portsmouth, but she normally spends weekdays in Nottingham, where Remit is headquartered, or Derby where the company recently opened its fifth automotive training academy.

Her commute for the last decade since joining Remit has taken up to four hours each way. But Pittock is not tempted to move nearer to Nottingham because family is “hugely important” to her. She has 26 cousins, most of whom live nearby, and loves living by the beach.

Like Pittock, Foulston also spends a lot of time in a car, travelling between his houses in Surrey, the Lake District and Spain, as well as Remit’s Nottingham office and his parents’ home in Yorkshire, where he grew up.

It seems appropriate that Remit’s biggest remit is the automobile sector, given how much time the pair spend driving – and that Foulston’s hobby is collecting cars.

He “wanted to be a car salesman” as a kid but became a “wordsmith” instead, becoming the first in his family to go to university when he studied law at Newcastle.

Rob Foulston speaking at a conference

From law to trade floor

Foulston’s legal career began at one of the “largest and most prestigious” law firms. But “the horror stories about working in big City firms played out” with “too much photocopying, proofreading and working straight through the night”.

Upon his resignation, he told one of the partners “I just don’t want to be like you”.

He transferred to a smaller firm, where he learnt a lot from partners who “took me everywhere with them”. It was “an apprenticeship in the true sense” and taught him the value of “complete immersion” in learning.

“How anyone thinks those skills can be learned remotely, I have no idea. Young people need to be in the workplace … learning first-hand from those around them.”

He worked as a lawyer for a French investment bank before joining a distressed debt trading team of the American firm, Bankers Trust, recalling how he “absolutely loved the trading floor, the buzz, the travel and the team”.

Around this time, his involvement in education began with his purchase of ITEC, an awarding body for health and beauty qualifications where his sister was lead examiner. They developed the business over the next 18 years, particularly internationally, before selling it on in 2016.

A Remit automobile apprentice

Remit’s rebirth

When Bankers Trust was taken over by Deutsche Bank, Foulston felt its “entrepreneurial spirit” had “been lost”. He retired in 2004, having always promised himself he would leave the City at 40.

Foulston’s interests in automobiles, education and buying and selling distressed businesses all came together when, in 2008, he came across Remit, an automotive apprenticeship provider which was then part of the insolvency of Carter & Carter plc. “It ticked all my boxes,” he says.

Remit had been sold to Carter & Carter for £25 million by its founder, the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI), almost two years earlier. Foulston “knocked on the administrator’s door” asking to buy the business back and “after a bit of a battle” they agreed, on condition he partnered with RMI.

“It was a slightly uncomfortable relationship,” he admits.

Remit recruited Pittock, initially as a consultant and then chief executive, in 2013, and three years ago the pair managed to buy the RMI out.

Pittock’s rise to Remit

Pittock’s career path was quite different to Foulston’s. Being “mad on sport”, she only went to college (for a sports diploma) because her volleyball coach worked there.

Pittock recently discovered that she still has the metabolic age of a 39-year-old, which she believes is partly thanks to playing volleyball at national level as a youth. She later harnessed the strong competitive drive that playing sport gave her in her corporate career.

Pittock planned to join the RAF but, before completing her final entrance exam, got a job at Granada Rental Services where she stayed for the next 17 years.

The company saw potential in her and paid to train her up, first with a customer service apprenticeship then an MBA. This meant a “really intense” four years working and studying, including most evenings and Sundays.

When she graduated and was promoted to client services director, Pittock felt she had “so much extra time” because she was no longer studying.

She moved to the education sector, joining Protocol Training as its sales director at age 34. Pittock was its only female board member in a sector then dominated by men, but brushes this off as irrelevant. “I’m one of those individuals so focused on what I want to achieve, that it didn’t really matter.”

In her next role at Tribal Group, she was told to expand its international reach. As the company had no international team in its business division, she feared this to be impossible and persuaded her boss instead to let her design and expand the company’s very small apprenticeships and offender learning and skills (OLASS) provision.

She proved her worth by landing a contract with McDonald’s, growing their programme from 200 learners to 4,000.

When Tribal restructured, Pittock joined Remit which at the time specialised in apprenticeships for automotive SMEs. It was “the historic model of one apprentice in one garage”, explains Foulston, and was “quite difficult to run because it didn’t have cohorts”.

So, when the apprenticeships levy was introduced in 2017, Remit moved from SMEs to levy paying clients. It has since broadened into digital, food and business and management, with clients including Starbucks, Morrisons, Volvo, Scania, and the Royal Mail.

The provider’s supermarket programmes cater for skills including “butcher, baker and fishmonger”, which Pittock says “always makes me laugh” because she never imagined they would end up teaching such skills.

A Remit classroom

Covid blow

Alas, Covid struck Remit a blow from which it is still recovering. The provider was teaching its learners remotely when DfE started telling Remit’s clients they could put learners on a break in learning, thereby pausing its funding streams.

Pittock explains with frustration how, for six weeks, Remit’s staff were telling the department to “please stop” this as “we were still servicing these learners!” The episode was “super challenging”.

Revenue “took an absolute dive”.

But “we’re building it back up again”. Whereas turnover and profit before tax for 2018 was £20 million and £761,959 respectively, for 2023 it was £18 million (up five per cent on the previous year) with a profit of £190,629.

Remit currently has just under 300 staff compared to 317 in 2018, but the company’s strong focus on its people means it is managing to retain existing employees well; staff turnover has halved in the last 18 months.

Yogic expectations

Pittock describes Remit’s five training academies as operating “a bit like colleges” in their look and feel. But she also worries about Ofsted treating providers as colleges when it comes to meeting its criteria. For example, during Remit’s recent inspection staff were asked if they provide yoga for learners.

“We were like, ‘yoga? No, they’re full-time apprentices who are at work! We’re not a college.”

An inspector also remarked to Remit staff that they “haven’t seen enough governors”, despite having seen all the company’s board members “bar one”.

Pittock believes that the inspection framework “lends itself better” to sixth-form colleges, which she claims fare better in Ofsted inspections than training providers. She estimates that around 5 to 10 per cent of what providers are required to do to meet Ofsted expectations are “not adding any value to anyone, and it’s wasting taxpayers’ money”.

However, she also sees the value in “the other 90 per cent”. She believes that “if you try to work with most of those key metrics that Ofsted want, it does help you run a really good business”.

Sue Pittock upon collecting her OBE

Lobbying life

Pittock wears many hats: she sits on the CBI Council for the East Midlands and recently signed up to IfATE’s light vehicle Trailblazer group, as well as joining AELP’s board.

“I’m quite happy to stick my head above the parapet and talk about the things I’m passionate about, but always in a super polite way”.

Recently, she has been “really vocal” around the HGV technician apprenticeship funding band, which in 2019 was slashed from £18,000 to £15,000. Pittock helped write the appeal which she felt was “solid”, but DfE disagreed.

“I’ve never let that go.” Although funding for this three-year engineering programme was last year boosted to £20,000, she believes it “still needs to be higher”.

Pittock is also lobbying hard to get green skills (electric vehicle (EV) and hydrogen) into automotive apprenticeship standards, amid an acute shortage of technicians. But in the meantime, Remit is filling its automobile clients’ skills gaps by branching into bespoke shorter courses.

Pittock is also “watching with interest” the recently signed East Midlands devolution deal, which could persuade Remit into re-entering adult education budget provision.

“They’re going to need to try and compete with the West Midlands where [mayor] Andy Street’s done quite a lot of work around green skills … we will see how we can help with hydrogen, EV, and the alternative fuels. The deal should bring more opportunities for us.”

Remit staff celebrating after getting the platinum Investors in People accreditation

Private equity

Remit’s new commercial arm is also helping counter “loss-making and challenging” elements of its apprenticeships business.

Remit is unusual these days in being a large provider that has not been funded through private equity, which means Pittock and Foulston are used to having free rein over decisions.

Both are familiar with the private equity market. During Pittock’s time at Protocol Training, it received equity backing, and Foulston knows the market well as a former investment banker. They both know that private equity would give them the resources to expand, which they are keen to do.

But neither are tempted by the lure of equity funders.

Foulston sees private equity as being “just a money game [and] they only care about your business to the extent that it produces a big profit.”

Pittock often gets calls from private equity firms and recruiters, including two in the previous week.

But she’s “not going anywhere”.

“I put money into the business, and I love what we do. And being grade one is now providing us with new opportunities.”

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