I don't know much in life, but I know how to run a plumbing company,” says Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers, matter-of-factly. Mullins is entitled to his own opinions (and he’s got his fair share) but he’s probably wrong on this one. The self-made multi-millionaire is unerringly humble – he’s not just any managing director. He has, over the years, become a respected business advocate and champion of state-backed apprenticeship schemes. Last year, the company took on 12 apprentices. “If they were fully-funded by the government, I’d take on 100 tomorrow. We need to do something about the skills shortage. And at the end of the day, if we don’t, there won’t be a Pimlico Plumbers to offer the jobs in the first place.”
For Mullins, success in life boils down to two things: common sense and hard work (though, unfortunately, the “problem with common sense is that it’s not that common,” he quips). At Pimlico, both are valued and expected – although Mullins is the first to admit that he had to reconcile ideology with reality in the early days. Setting up in 1979, aged 25, he was “fed up with being told what to do. I thought, ‘work for yourself, problem solved’. But of course, you don’t realise that you’ve got to work harder and longer. It’s not an easy life. But the more you put into it, the more you get out”.
Today, Pimlico is London’s largest plumbing company, has a raft of celebrity clients, and offers a host of other domestic services from boiler repair to locksmiths. Ensuring customers always know where they stand – the firm has fixed quotes (£105 for a plumber on a weekday, for example) and a 24-hour phone service – is paramount, says Mullins. It doesn’t matter whether you’re running a traditional services company or trendy tech startup, “people love communication; they want to speak to someone. If your business is based on tech, that’s fine. But keep in as much human contact as possible”.
Despite the size of his company, Mullins has “no intention of selling or floating... this is a family business. I’ve got eight members of my family working for me.” In 2016, he intends to hit £30m turnover. And in the next three to five years, Mullins plans to double his 260-strong workforce, and to continue expansion across Greater London. For him, Pimlico’s growth plan rests heavily on politics: “I believe it can only happen if the Conservatives stay in, but this is how confident I am that they will. In five years’ time, my company will be twice the size.”
Mullins has very little time for the Labour Party or Ed Miliband: “I’m sure he’s not a bad guy and would be good at something. But let him run the country? I wouldn’t let him run my bath.” The problem with the Labour leader, says Mullins, is that he simply does not understand businesses – and he doesn’t listen to them, either.
Things are going well for businesses at the moment, says Mullins – “and certainly for plumbers. You don’t need half a brain to realise that [under Labour] we’d go back to the 70s. Businesses aren’t going to back Miliband. And how can you not back the guy [Cameron] who’s cut the deficit down, cut unemployment, cut benefits and created over a million apprenticeship positions?”
So certain is Mullins that we’re looking at a Tory win (he’s not concerned about “Marmite” Nigel Farage, or his party) that he recently phoned a bookmakers to place a £1m bet on it. It was for charity – Pimlico has been raising money for a local girl suffering from cancer – but illustrates well Mullins’s confidence.
He thinks the Tories made a particularly good decision in lowering the top rate of income tax to 45 per cent from 50 per cent. Not only has it brought in more revenue, he says, but “it shows the importance of incentives. If you think about it, psychologically speaking, people don’t like giving half of something away – 45 per cent was a clever move.”
The significance of incentives extends further than that for Mullins. A recipient of an apprenticeship himself, it seems obvious to him that the government should be re-routing job benefits to employers of young people to form a pay packet. He’s pleased with how far Whitehall has got – offering volunteer placements for young people – and believes it’s “nearly there” with fully-funded apprenticeships, which would be transformative. “David [Cameron] needs to get more businesses to take on apprentices. Why get them volunteering when they could learn a trade? We could solve youth unemployment and sort out the skills shortage in five to 10 years.”
And it doesn’t matter if young people are driven by materialism, says Mullins, who is well-known for his flashy lifestyle: “my drive was money – there’s nothing wrong with that. So long as there’s something making them want to work.” Obviously “not everyone will get to the top of the ladder, and that’s fine too. When I talk to young people, I say, ‘just make sure you’re on the ladder. It doesn’t matter what car you’re driving, as long as you’re driving a car.’”
A group of young people leaving Pimlico Plumbers HQ will invariably “want to be plumbers, and want to be me,” says Mullins. He quickly explains that he doesn’t mean to sound pompous – that’s just the nature of seeing a business at work. In March, his autobiography Bog Standard Business will be published – a read that he hopes will give people a flavour of how he’s made things work over the years.
Mullins himself actually “hates” the word entrepreneur. “So many people use it nowadays; they’ve weakened it.” It’s not enough to start something; you need to be someone who can run and grow a business, says Mullins. And when it comes to running a successful plumbing business, he’s obviously the right man for the job.
Company name: Pimlico Plumbers
Number of staff: 262
Job title: Managing director (owner and founder)
Born: Camden, London
Lives: Central London
Studied: Life, plumbing and most south London postcodes
Drinking at: Raffles, King’s Road
Eating at: The Botanist, Sloane Square
Reading: The Sun
Heroes: Margaret Thatcher
First ambition: To become an Olympic Gold Medal-winning, world champion professional boxer
Most likely to say: “A man who never made a mistake, never made f*** all”
Least likely to say: “Ed Miliband will make a great Prime Minister”
Awards: Plumber of the Year; Big Society (Number 10); Campaign of the Year (Public Affairs Awards, 2014), and OBE (January 2015)