Charlie Mullins: The multi-million pound plumber

Charlie Mullins was worth around £49million according to the Sunday Times Rich List last year. A far cry from the “two bob a day” he started out earning, while helping a local plumber in the 1960s. But it was the lessons he learnt then as a plumber’s mate that have been the foundation of his success.

And what a success. Mullins’ business – Pimlico Plumbers – made £1.2million in the year to 31 May 2011, almost double the £688,000 it made the year before. The company also donated nearly £100,000 to charity.

It’s hard to begrudge straight-talking Mullins his achievements when you consider that he started life on the tough Rockingham estate in London’s Elephant & Castle.

Aged nine he began bunking off school and working for a North London plumber called Bill Ellis. He has said since that his business principles were modelled on what he learnt from Ellis.

“When I was growing up he was my biggest inspiration and he still is today. The success of Pimlico Plumbers is all down to that one man,” Mullins wrote on his personal blog Charlie Pipes Up in an appeal to Ellis to get in touch, the pair having lost contact years ago.


Learning his trade

Whether Mullins’ success is down to Ellis or not, he’s certainly done well for himself. He left school at 15 with no academic qualifications and embarked on a four-year plumbing apprenticeship. Once qualified he started working for himself, starting out with a bag of second-hand tools, before setting up a plumbing firm in a basement in – guess where – Pimlico.

Right from the beginning when he was a one-man band, Mullins wanted to distance himself from plumbers with a reputation for unreliability and overcharging. Instead of just being a bog standard plumber he planned to do things “the right way” – such as doing his best to turn up on time and treat his customers fairly.

More than 30 years later the main principle behind Pimlico Plumbers remains the same. The company prides itself as providing a high-priced, high-quality service and has been dubbed the “celebrities’ plumber” with clients including Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley. Services certainly don’t come cheap with customers charged £80 to £200 an hour depending on the time of day and type of job required.

The company’s 150 distinctive vans are commonplace on the streets of London. Some have personalised number plates including the registrations LAV 1, W4 TER, DRA 1N, and B1 DET.


Not all plain sailing

There have been a few bumps in the road though; the business was badly hit by the recession in the early 1990s with Mullins saying he became more “ruthless” as a result, especially in regard to staff.

In 2009 the firm became involved with a legal dispute with rival firm Service Corps. Set up by Steve Cosser, an Australian TV executive, Service Corps was accused of stealing Pimlico's celebrity client list as well as poaching staff. Services Corps collapsed in January 2010 following the legal action and pinned a sign to its office window blaming Mullins for the firm going under.

Although 70% of the company’s work is still plumbing or heating, Pimlico Plumbers has branched out into other areas and now employs electricians, carpenters and locksmiths too. The target market remains the same though – domestic properties, small shops and offices rather than large corporations.

The Pimlico brand hasn’t moved out of London either and offers a 24/7 service from its headquarters in Vauxhall. Mullins estimates that he has about 6% of the London plumbing market – meaning the other 94% is still there for the taking.

He told business website newbusiness.co.uk that his biggest regret was not putting a professional structure in place sooner. Up until about 10 years ago Mullins was still doing everything he could himself rather than delegating work to other managers.

He puts his success down to having the right team around him, including his wife and children who all work for the company. He also employs several sons and daughters of long-serving employees.

Mullins is also a regular on our TV screens. From a 2009 appearance in the ‘Secret Millionaire’, when he went undercover as a handyman in Warrington to help three local charities, to just last week when he undertook an experiment in open salaries for the Channel 4 programme ‘Show Me The Money’.

He also is never afraid to share his opinion, on everything from the Olympics (“a waste of time and money”), benefits (“[some] people don’t have any aspirations any more”) or plans to phase out cheques (“another example of greedy bankers looking to make money at the expense of business owners”) making him a frequent presence on news channels.


Giving something back

Despite going from a council estate to a multi-million-pound mansion with a Bentley parked outside through hard work, Mullins hasn’t forgotten those with less than himself.

Mullins is committed to charity and has set up apprenticeship programmes at Pimlico Plumbers to offer young people the same chances he had.

He is also a patron of the Prince’s Trust, raises money for The Rhys Daniels Trust while he ensures his company is actively involved with fundraising for a string of other organisations.

“I’ve been a little bit fortunate and I’m delighted to be in the position to be able to help others and put something back into society and I hope it can continue for a long time to come,” as he put it himself.

A man who believes in hard work, doing a job well – not cheaply – openness and offering others the opportunities he carved out for himself, let’s hope he can prove as big an inspiration to the apprentices his company trains as Bill Ellis was to him.