Duncan Titmarsh built his business model on rekindled enthusiasm for Lego bricks.
When Duncan Titmarsh left home to join the Royal Air Force at the age of 17, among the possessions he left behind was a not inconsiderable collection of Lego that he had been accumulating since he was four.
“My first Lego set was a blue aeroplane, and when my mum realised that it had kept me quiet for ages she just bought me more and more.”
However, four years in the RAF, including a tour of duty in the Gulf war, left little time for such distractions and the Lego sat gathering dust in his parents’ loft. It wasn’t until he was 22, when he was walking through Woolworths with his wife, that he came across a Lego display that rekindled his interest.
“My wife convinced me to buy myself a set and it all restarted from there,” the 46-year-old says. The dust was blown off the old collection, Mr Titmarsh started trawling car boot sales for missing and collectable pieces and his newly rediscovered hobby began taking up more and more of his time.
He became a member of the Adult Fans of Lego, a community of fellow enthusiasts and, through them, came to the attention of the BBC. “I don’t think I was the first person they approached, but they wanted someone who was available to go into Radio 4 the very next day to build a replica studio live on air.”
It was the first time he had earned money indulging his hobby and the programme set off a chain of inquiries that gave him the belief that he could earn a living building Lego.
“I started out working from the garden shed,” he says. “Then I built a model of a Lego castle from 1978, scaled up six times. It came out at over 1.5 metres wide. The people from Lego spotted it online and asked me to take it to Lego World, their annual event for fans and builders held in Copenhagen.”
Through that he learnt of the Lego certified professionals programme and applied. “To be considered, they have to look at your business plan and also at you as a person and how you interact with the public. Although you don’t actually work for them, you do represent their brand.”
Now one of only 12 Lego certified professionals worldwide, and the only one in Britain, Mr Titmarsh runs Bright Bricks, a business that is beyond anything he could have imagined even a few years ago.
He first took on commercial premises in 2011 after teaming up with Ed Diment, his business partner. They were approached by Rolls-Royce to create a moving half-scale replica of a Trent jet engine, designed to inspire young people to pursue a career in engineering. “The shed was simply too small,” he says.
To this day that project remains the most challenging he has been asked to build. A walk around the present Bright Bricks workshop, where upwards of 15 million carefully catalogued bricks line the walls, is something of a surreal experience, akin to waking up in Toyland. Life-size models of a fire engine, a caravan, a dog and even prawns (for a forthcoming event in Dubai) vie for space, and it is hard to suppress a smile when coming face to face with BB-8 and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
There are colourful parrots, cute teddy bears and ecclesiastical buildings of huge proportions. One recent project was the creation of a template for a 300,000-brick model of Durham Cathedral, which was built by members of the public who paid £1 or more for each brick laid. The three-year fundraising exercise was completed late last month.
Business is booming, Mr Titmarsh says. “We now have 43 employees, 25 of whom are building Lego. We run a huge range of activities, from building commissioned pieces to appearing at trade shows as an attraction on clients’ stands, to running children’s birthday parties.
“Our turnover last year was £1.5 million and we have just moved into a double workshop unit while keeping on our previous premises for storage. We have built a mosaic in San Francisco, a ship in Dubai and a molecule for a Florida art show.
“If you can imagine it, we can build it,” Mr Titmarsh says.
If you’re good, it’s a snap
Job Certified Lego professional
Qualifications “Our team includes people with a product design degree to those who left school at 16. The most important thing is a good work ethic”
Starting salary About £16,000
Hours “We sometimes have to work on an installation through the night”
Best bit “I love going out and working with kids. You teach them a few bits and then you just see them click. They can be so creative”
Worst bit “Meeting difficult deadlines. Sometimes you wonder how on earth you are going to achieve it but you always find a way round it”
Favourite project to date “The Christmas tree we built in 2011 for St Pancras station. We were asked to ensure it beat the world record height of 9 metres. It ended up 12.2 metres tall”