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

The Pimlico Plumbers founder explains how he got his business running with the help of an estate agent, an answering machine and Sam Fox…

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 the first of two extracts from Mullins’ new book Bog Standard Business, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur outlines how he built a multi-million pound business from scratch and how he overcame various obstacles along the way.

All proceeds from the 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.

Looking back now, it’s funny how fame and celebrity played a part in my story even before I became known as ‘Plumber to the Stars’.

First there was the boxing, then the Roger Bannister thing, and then in 1983, the daughter of my carpenter mate Pat Fox – the lovely Samantha – got her picture on page three of The Sun.

Pat was frantic because the phone was ringing off the hook. He said to me, “Charlie, I need to take some time off to help Sam get this off the ground.” He told me he’d be away for three weeks, and he never came back.

The disappearance of Pat brought things to a head. Up to that point Pimlico Plumbers had still just been me, working in a loose association with Pat. We had a good formula and I guess I’d become complacent. Now he was gone and I had all these juicy jobs piling up and no carpenter. So I hired one.

Then John, the estate agent, offered to rent me a room in his basement. He had quite a big office on Sussex Street in Pimlico.

“What the f*** do I want a room for?” I asked.

“For an office, Charlie” he said, looking at me like maybe I was a bit thick.

Stepping out of my comfort zone

But I wasn’t stupid, I was scared. I’d just taken on an employee, and now John was saying I needed an office. Could I carry that cost? I mean, I was doing well, but this was commitment with a capital ‘C’. It’s the classic fear of the little guy, and it didn’t help when I talked about it with the carpenter. He just whistled and said, “Well, Charlie, I’m glad it’s you and not me.”

Then the words of the Iron Lady came back to me. I could be a jobbing solo act for the rest of my life, and that would be fine, but that’s all I would ever be. If I wanted to take this somewhere I had to step out of my comfort zone.

So I took the room. I was terrified! I’d wake up in the night sweating, worrying about what I’d got myself into. But the only way was forward now and the thing about an office is you have to put stuff in it. So I put in a phone. Then I put in this great big answering machine. It sounds stupid now, but that answering machine made me feel like a hotshot businessman.

Today, I’m proud of Pimlico Plumbers’ call centre. It’s the nerve centre of the business. We continually fine-tune the way it works and I’m always investing in IT and training. Our latest graduate apprentice came up through the call centre. It’s my pride and joy, and my obsession with it stems from the hours I spent with that clunky old answering machine.

After being out on jobs all day I’d race back to the office and most times find it jammed with messages. I’d started advertising by then and that, plus the 10 years of graft I’d put in to build a reputation, plus the fact that decent tradesmen are always hard to find, meant that my phone was ringing off the hook.

The struggle of work/life balance

Returning calls and booking appointments took hours every evening. It was thrilling, but I couldn’t keep it up. I was getting home at midnight most days. Meanwhile, our third child, darling little Lucy, had been born in 1984. As a family man, I was torn. Yes, I needed to bring home the bacon, but I didn’t want a repeat of my own upbringing – with parents absent, if not in body then in mind. I needed to be around more for the kids and to support Lynda, who was run off her feet.

At the same time there was no way I could take my foot off the gas with the business. By then we’d moved again. I’d sold the little house in Lee for £30,000, pocketing a tidy £21,000, and bought a semi-detached bungalow farther out into the suburbs, out in Sidcup.

It was our dream come true – spacious, all on one level, big garden – but I’d paid £46,000, so there were hefty mortgage repayments to make. By then we were also getting used to having a bit of money. We had two cars, nice clothes – we were enjoying life.

It was another classic dilemma in the life of a small business – I needed to expand, but how?

View the second installment of Mullins’ million-pound business success story here…

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