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Unblocking potential

Written by Hannah Prevett, Emilie Sandy on Monday, 06 January 2014. Posted in Big business, Interviews

Charlie Mullins used to wag off school to help a plumber for “two bob a day”. Now dubbed the ‘plumber to the stars’, Mullins has a chauffeur-driven Bentley, an apartment in the exclusive Whitehouse complex at Waterloo and a business turning over £18m

Unblocking potential

Lending a hand to the local plumber wasn’t Charlie Mullins’ first job. He was an errand boy, a bag wash boy and also peeled potatoes at a local chip shop. But when he met the plumber, and saw the wealth he had accumulated thanks to his trade, Mullins knew he’d found his calling. “We were a pretty poor family – not that I want to bang on about that because everyone wants to be poorer than everyone else these days,” says Mullins.

“That plumber was the only person I’d ever met that had money. He had money, he had a car, he had a motorbike, a nice house and nice things in his house. He had bundles of money,” he explains. “The seeds were sown then. Whatever he had done, I’d have wanted to do that. If he’d have been a bank robber...,” Mullins laughs.

Still, he stuck with school for another few years, and eventually left at 15 with no qualifications. “That was a massive mistake – I should have left at 14,” he says. 

Living with his family in Elephant and Castle, south London, Mullins got an apprenticeship at a firm of plumbers in Raynes Park, near Wimbledon. Halfway through his four-year stint as an apprentice, Mullins had a disagreement with his bosses and was transferred to another plumbers’ yard in Loughborough Junction, nearer his home in south London. That’s the thing about apprenticeships, says Mullins. They’re not easy to walk away from. “I signed papers, so it wasn’t easy for them to get rid of me, they can’t just fuck you off, and you can’t just walk off. And thank God for that. I would have left a thousand times and they would have got rid of me a thousand times.”

Mullins says the root cause of his dissatisfaction was lack of money. “All my mates were earning loads of money and I was broke. Well, I say ‘loads of money’ but they were probably getting 12 quid a week, and I was getting three quid a week.” But friends and family urged the teenager to be more patient. “I remember people saying to me, ‘what you don’t earn now you’ll earn later’ and that has come true. Another thing I say to the apprentices here, and what that local plumber I worked with as a youngster said, is if you become a plumber you’ll never be out of work and you’ll earn loads of money.”

Still, as the bright lights of unblocking U-bends and fixing punters’ central heating beckoned, Mullins turned his hand to all sorts of wheeling and dealing, even snapping up a sweet shop in Greenwich. But Mullins had an itch he was yearning to scratch. “When I finished my apprenticeship, I was pissed off with people knocking plumbers,” he says. “They’d say things like: ‘they’re late, they’re scruffy, they never finish the job, they never give you a price,’ all these things, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to change the image of plumbing’.”

“I think Pimlico Plumbers has done that over the years by wearing a smart uniform, good vans, turning up on time, being transparent about cost, not ripping people off, finishing the job, and respecting people’s houses. All those types of things. I came up with about ten or 20 things that were bad about the image of plumbers and I just done the opposite.”

And Mullins’ charm offensive certainly appears to have paid dividends: “plumbers are a lot more respected now. When I started out there were signs saying ‘Tradesmen: go round the back’. The difference is now customers will welcome you with open arms and offer you a cup of tea at the front. That’s how much it’s moved on.”

It’s not just perception of industry that’s changed since then – Pimlico Plumbers is unrecognisable as the fledgling one-man-band that started out in the basement of an estate agent in Pimlico. “I started working around there and everybody started referring to me as the Pimlico Plumber. We’ll give the Pimlico Plumber a call. I’d love to say I thought of the name, but I didn’t really.”

It was smooth sailing for a number of years: the business expanded, hiring more plumbers and one room in the basement became two, until eventually Mullins took over the lease for the entire basement. But then, unfortunately things began to unravel. 

“In the late 80s we nearly went bust,” admitted Mullins. The entrepreneur puts the company’s brush with failure down to a lack of forward-planning. “I didn’t really have a proper plan in place. We were just working, but weren’t really organised and there was no strategy or structure in place,” he recalls. The final nail in the coffin was that debts had spiralled. “We used to run credit accounts with people then; I think we had about £80,000 owing us. And I owed all the suppliers, I owed tax people, I owed everybody. Then I had a poxy bank loan out for a building. So basically I owed half a million pound,” he says.

The solution? Sacking all of his advisors was Mullins’ first move. Having visited one liquidator who suggested he closed the company, losing his own house in the process, he visited another, who had much more prudent advice. “He said: ‘you’ll lose everything if you turn it all in, so you might as well fight’. And that’s what we did.”

Pimlico Plumbers mark two runs a much tighter ship. The company is much more rigidly structured now, with an accounts department, an HR department and so on – in short, the mechanics of a larger, professional organisation. “If I’m honest, I think back in those early days I was trying to do everything and I thought I was good at everything,” admits Mullins. “You learn after a while, and I’m not embarrassed to admit it, you ain’t good at everything.” The entrepreneur attributes some of his success to his newfound powers of delegation. 

The other secret ingredient is keeping a much firmer grasp of finances. “I don’t let nobody owe me money no more, we don’t run up bills no more,” he explains. “Most people go bust because people owe them money, so whereas we used to invoice customers now it’s all payment on completion.” Even Pimlico Plumbers’ roster of celebrity customers has to pay by cash, cheque or credit card when the job’s done. “It’s the god’s honest truth that if the queen rang us tomorrow and said she needed a job doing she would have to give us a cheque when we finished or she’s not getting us.”

Whilst the firm may be unlikely to receive a call from Buckingham Palace, Pimlico Plumbers has accrued something of a reputation of being ‘plumbers to the stars’, and can count Dame Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, Eric Clapton and famous footballers amongst its fans. Even the Pimlico Plumbers officers are bathed in the glow of celebrity; the walls papered in photographs of Mullins rubbing shoulders with well-known faces at glitzy events. 

“We didn’t set out to go after celebrity customers,” claims Mullins. “But they’re the same as any normal customer – they’ve got plumbing problems too – and they started to use us because we had a good reputation. Them type of star people mix with other stars so word soon spreads,” he explains.  

And it’s not just TV stars and pop singers that Mullins shoots the breeze with these days. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and George Osborne, the chancellor, and a whole host of other politicians have visited the Pimlico Plumbers HQ in Lambeth to discuss Mullins’ ideas about apprentices – a subject very close to his heart. Pimlico Plumbers currently has 25 apprentices, which is rather impressive given the combined headcount only totals 220. 

“I’m a great believer in apprenticeships,” says Mullins. “For me, they’re Pimlico Plumbers’ future. I work with the government on apprentices too and I’m trying to get them to do a national apprenticeship scheme, so there’s just one scheme, which will make it less complicated. I want them to fully fund apprenticeships, too,” he adds. 

Two of the firm’s apprentices are Mullins’ grandsons, Ashley, 17, a heating apprentice, and Charlie, 16, a plumbing apprentice. And they’re not the only members of the Mullins clan who work within the business. It’s quite the family affair. “My wife, four children, two son-in-laws and two grandsons all work here,” says Mullins. “I’m sure it doesn’t work for everyone, but I’m a real believer in family businesses.”

Indeed, Mullins attributes much of Pimlico Plumbers’ success to its employees – family or otherwise. “People often say to me what a great company I’ve got, but I haven’t done it all and I’d never claim to have done it all,” he says. “The company is only as good as the people who work for you. Many would do well to remember that.” 

Charlie Mullins is a keynote speaker at the Elite Business National Conference & Exhibition, taking place at the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch on 10-11 April 2014. Visit the website for more details.

About the Author

Hannah Prevett

Hannah Prevett

Prevett likes to think she's something of an expert when it comes to small business. Having cut her teeth writing about tech, she latterly moved on to such illustrious titles as Growing Business, Management Today and the Sunday Times to indulge her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship: from P&Ls to private equity and all that's in between, you can't keep this girl away from the heady world of start-ups. 

Back in the day when she had spare time, she would spend it networking, horse riding, drafting and re-drafting ideas for novels, and playing auntie to her niece and three god-children. Those were the days...

Emilie Sandy

Emilie Sandy

Aside from dashing between the Cotswolds and London to shoot business types for magazines such as EB and TV stars for the Beeb, Sandy is also a visiting lecturer at a college in Stroud – not to mention a proud mother to son Freddie and daughter Fjola. She has photographed our cover stars since our very first edition. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke...

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