Charlie Mullins OBE: From bogs to £25m business empire – Part 2

Pimlico Plumbers now employs over 270 people but, in the early days, Mullins struggled with staffing and had to adopt the "micromanagement" approach

Charlie Mullins OBE left school at 15 with no qualifications, began work as a plumber and in 1979 established Pimlico Plumbers; now London’s largest independent plumbing firm with revenues of £25m and over 270 staff.

In this second extract from Mullins’ new book Bog Standard Business, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur outlines how he recruited his first employees and dealt with the fall-out when things didn’t quite go to plan.

Click here to read the first installment of Mullins’ million-pound business success story.

There were only so many hours in my day, and so much I could charge per hour. I needed more MEs!

The first thing I did was hire a retired schoolteacher to man the phone during the day. Ms Jones, we’ll call her. I thought she was brilliant at first: very proper and reassuring.

Then I hired another plumber, and then another. I was getting used to the idea that if I played my cards right, the calls would keep coming. And I could sense the potential for my little business, now I just needed to strap on my skates and step onto the ice.

Naturally I took a few spills at first. There were now three plumbers, myself included, out doing the jobs I’d won and in my name. But the thing about these other two plumbers was, I thought they’d be just like me, but they weren’t.

They weren’t quite as quick as me, or as efficient with time and materials, or as careful about bookkeeping, or as skilled with the customers. Also, they seemed to make stupid decisions about where they needed to be next and what they should be doing.

Taking the reigns

There were glitches in jobs and problems with customers that I never had. Instead of reeling in new work in the evenings, I found I was on the phone shouting at these guys, or getting shouted at in turn by pissed-off customers.

Now I realise that this is all par for the course. The problem was not that they were bad plumbers; it was also that Pimlico Plumbers wasn’t their business. I said before that being a good plumber is one thing, but making money at it is another.

The company was my baby and I was starting to see a future for it. It was beginning to capture my imagination the way boxing did. I had the passion and the vision for how to get to where I wanted to be, while for them it was just a job.

It was the next classic dilemma in the life of a small business: these guys needed to be managed. Time to vacate comfort zones again. I had to come off the tools, stop working in the business and start working on it.

I began spending a half-day in the office. I let Ms Jones go. She was okay on the phone but she didn’t know how to make money at plumbing. I did, and I had to be there to oversee things. It felt very weird at first – I need stuff to do and that had always meant tools and problems to fix right in front of my nose. Sitting at a desk I was a fish out of water.

Nevertheless, I soon got to grips with it. Talking to customers to diagnose their problem, estimating the time and cost of jobs, organising the plumbers’ schedules, ordering materials and negotiating with suppliers – I began to develop a bird’s-eye view of the business. The guys didn’t like it much at first.

Learning to micromanage

Suddenly I was all over them like a rash, telling them what to do, how to do it, and when – and checking up on them. Micromanaging, they call it these days. Well, tough luck! One of the guys adjusted, one left, and I got two more in.

Soon I was spending all day in the office, honing things like pricing, marketing, and customer care. I was fascinated by it all.

Occasionally I would still go out in the evenings for emergency call-outs, but my main thing was turning Pimlico Plumbers into a well-oiled machine. Any mechanic worth his salt can tell a lot about what’s working in an engine and what isn’t just by listening, and during this period – the mid-1980s – I was developing my ear.

All proceeds from Mullins’ book will be going to three year-old Chloe Balloqui from Pimlico, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in October 2013 and needs to travel to the US for further treatment – you can donate here.

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