The rock ’n’ roll career of MBKB boss Mark Bremner

Building, bankruptcy and bands were all training for life at MBKB

I learned not to be so trusting financially

To some, Mark Bremner is known as the boss who lets staff at his training business take as many holidays as they want.

But to others he’s a builder, a failed barrister, tech nerd, record label founder, fantasy fiction writer and a frustrated rock music merchandiser. He was also once made bankrupt.

His journey to the top job at MBKB – which has an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted – is anything but conventional.

The self-confessed “fidget” has taken his legendary energy from one venture to the next, but tells me he’s finally settled after “finding his tribe” among his 108 staff in Dudley, in the West Midlands. 

Sitting at home in front of a Beatles calendar, Bremner says his first career dream aged 14 was to be a software developer after he created a database for his school and a “light pen” that could draw on a screen.

His dad was unimpressed. Bremner says: “He told me ‘no one’s gonna make any money sat in front of one of those things’, which I reminded him about several times years later.”

But the MBKB founder and chief executive learnt vital leadership lessons from his dad. As “an impetuous” teenager, he was initially outraged when he went to work on his father’s building sites and discovered the workers were allowed extra-long lunch breaks to listen to sporting events on the radio.

His dad told him: “If we can get five hours of good work out of these guys every day, that’s all we need…You judge them on the quality of the work they do.”

Mark Bremner

Broken and bankrupt

After forgetting all ideas of a computing career, Bremner took a course in building studies at Dudley College, then worked at Bryant Construction and for his dad before setting up his own firm, DMA Construction.

Things were going “really well” when he took on a £700,000 contract for a large office refurbishment. But then his client’s middleman stopped making payments for work done and gave a reassurance this “slight cashflow hiccup” would be rectified. So Bremner “took a punt” and finished the job. 

His company ended up being owed £220,000, with Bremner owing £175,000 to subcontractors who he promised to pay back with interest.

Two years later, aged 27, Bremner racked up £40,000 in legal fees after taking his debtor to court.

Although he won, the defendant declared themselves bankrupt the following day – leaving Bremner forced to do the same.

It was an “incredibly stressful” time for Bremner, who had a two year old and newborn baby. He borrowed from his wife’s brother to save the family home.

Then one of Bremner’s suppliers, who was owed £4,000, took him to court. On the steps outside beforehand, Bremner pleaded with the man and his solicitor to settle. They refused, instead telling Bremner’s wife “be prepared to lose your house”.

Representing himself, Bremner questioned why they should “jump to the top of the list” as he owed several other people money too. The judge threw the case out, and back outside Bremner told his antagonists “you’ll never see a penny of that debt as long as I live”.

Mark Bremner and his team at MBKB

Laughed out of the room

Now armed with experience of being at the sharp end of debt collection, Bremner thought he’d put all he’d learnt to good use in the legal world and train as a barrister. But he only lasted a few weeks. “There were so many really inspiring youngsters already ahead of me in their journey,” he says. And a lawyer’s wages are “not like in the movies”.

He applied for work as a business consultant but was “almost laughed out the room” because of his bankruptcy. He wore the setback as a “badge of honour”, believing his experience was “a lesson”, which “taught me a lot of valuable things”. He adds: “I learnt not to be so trusting financially.”

Feeling like a lost soul, Bremner went to work at his wife Kathy’s nursery.

Realising the strength of her business came from the staff, Bremner organised for them to be trained up for free when Spring Skills (which later became Protocol Skills) offered fully funded level-three NVQs in customer service.

The workers passed in three months, although Bremner admits with the current childcare sector challenges “you couldn’t do that now”.

Mark Bremner right when he was with Protocol Skills

Going Platinum

Bremner applied for a job with Protocol in 1999 as a leadership and management trainer.

He tells me he was given “quite the speech” from the manager during his interview about the industry’s “three P’s” – “the pressure’s insane, the pay’s appalling and there’s no promotional opportunities”.

But after a week in the job his manager was sacked and, “much to everyone’s amusement”, Bremner got a promotion.

At the time, Protocol was the UK’s largest work-based training provider but Bremner believed it was “too rigid”. He says there was a “massive gap” in the market for childcare training and became “disillusioned” when he was blocked from pursuing that growth. He sought the company’s permission to explore these “unique opportunities” through his own business.

Striking that agreement wasn’t a smooth process, but “ultimately” the resulting “gentleman’s agreement” allowed Bremner to contract with the Learning and Skills Council through the company he formed, Platinum Training, on the condition he wouldn’t “tread on Protocol’s toes” and would only operate in the childcare sector.

Platinum grew from 20 to 400 apprentices in two years but hit a “roadblock” when the Learning and Skills Council didn’t extend their contract, leaving them with “zero income” for four months.

The firm’s first Ofsted inspection in 2004 awarded it with “grade twos and threes across the board” – enough to persuade the Learning and Skills Council to turn the funding taps back on.

Fable Label and their Laney Amps t shirts

Rock ’n’ roll lifestyle

Platinum by then had 87 staff, and while Bremner could see changes afoot with technical certificates and the move from key skills to functional skills, he admits he had “lost interest” in the business.

Then In 2009, Bremner lost his father “out of the blue”. His children were aged 15, 13 and nine and the shock prompted a realisation for Bremner that he’d spent “a great swathe” of their young lives working.

He grabbed an offer to sell up for £3 million in 2010 and took a year off.

It was at this point his career went a little off-piste. After renovating his house, Bremner achieved his childhood dream of writing a book – a fantasy fiction, entitled Intervention, about devils and angels. “It turns out I’m not very good at writing books,” he admits.

Then he became “incensed” by the “lazy” style of a John Lennon T-shirt he spotted on holiday at Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, Florida. It featured a “standard” picture of the star with the lyrics of the song Imagine.

He believed rock concert T-shirts at that time were “cheap and horrible” and thought he and his graphic designer brother-in-law could do better. Sadly, retail giant Primark had the same idea and so the licences the pair needed were yanked from their grasp.

At the same time, Bremner’s son Daniel started a band, first called Audio Disease, then renamed EofE, who were “getting a bit of notoriety”.

“Not to do anything by halves”, Bremner then set up a record label, Cream Record Corp, to manage them.

He tells me he “pulled every string” to get them on tour with McBusted, then The Vamps. They were tantalisingly close to getting their big break after “touring relentlessly” for 20 months, but then they fell out and it was all over.

Mark Bremner managed the band EofE

‘Unlimited holiday’

By then, previous employer Paragon had embarked on a restructuring which released a “massive wealth of talent” onto the market, tempting Bremner back into the training game. 

Bremner says he had “missed the sector” and “learned a lot from the retail and record industry” he wanted to put into practice – by “doing it our own way”.

So in 2015, MBKB was formed and staff were told “pick your own hours”, and offered “unlimited holidays”. He tells me: “My accountant and business partner still can’t get his head around this.”

MBKB started with a focus on childcare but times were tough because they had to “subcontract to colleges” which Bremner tells me “clipped our wings in terms of innovation”.

Then with the introduction of the apprenticeships levy, funding was slashed because the childcare framework did not become a standard.

Bremner considered “closing the doors” but decided to “repivot” into payroll instead. By this time, his agreement not to compete with Protocol had expired, giving him freedom to access other opportunities.

By 2018 he had 12 staff, including his youngest daughter. An inquiry from the revived travel brand Thomas Cook became the big break they needed. 

Bremner says: “We were this tiny little company in Dudley that no one’s heard of, then Thomas Cook call [about payroll].”

Pets at Home, several NHS Trusts and local authorities followed. And Brent Council asked MBKB to collaborate on an internal audit, which brought about a new niche for the provider.

“The world and his dog” were delivering leadership and management training, so Bremner felt it would be “difficult to rise above that noise”.  But later, they added HR and coaching as an add-on for companies.

EofE before they split

On-off months

Bremner was “horrified” when an Ofsted monitoring visit in 2019 found MBKB only making “reasonable progress”. He “fought” the judgement but to no avail.

Then Covid hit them hard financially. A silver lining was the guidance service they could provide on navigating furlough requirements.

Ofsted in 2022 rated MBKB as ‘outstanding’ in all but one category (personal development was ‘good’), which Bremner welcomed as “giving us something to aim for”. 

But he worries “getting ‘outstanding’ is often a precursor to a downfall”.

“Mistakes” were made in 2023, when in “certain months we grew too quickly” and apprenticeship starts had to be delayed.

To manage the flow better, the company embarked on a process of “on-off months”, so apprentices were recruited one month, and paperwork and initial assessments were done the next.

Mark Bremner at the 2022 AAC awards

Giving the anti-sell

Bremner says the high number of people leaving apprenticeships early is frustrating and tells me we live in a “throw your toys out of the pram world where people quit”.

MBKB tries to combat this by “lovingly” doing “an anti-sell”, giving the apprentices “all the negatives about the apprenticeship and why they shouldn’t do it” to weed out unsuitable candidates.

Achievement rates were a “grim” 52 per cent for last year partly because “a lot of programmes” began before end-point assessments (EPAs) were in place. MBKB was the first provider to put corporate responsibility and sustainability apprentices through assessments, but there were “teething problems” with those EPAs.

Brenmer believes working for MBKB is “probably 25 per cent more difficult” than for other providers, because “we’re very stringent on what we want”.

But he still allows staff to work the hours they want, although the business has “slightly tightened up” with team members who are “new to the industry”.

With a career path that’s taken so many twists and turns, is Bremner still seeking the next big thing?

The answer is no. He tells me: “I’ve found my tribe with the people at MBKB. I’m very happy here.”

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