Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins: The interview

The Pimlico Plumbers founder on why selling up would be like jumping off a winning horse

“It’s just as well he wasn’t a bank robber,” says Charlie Mullins, after explaining his career in plumbing stemmed from admiring a local tradesman as a child. The Camden-based plumber Charlie did odd jobs for was ‘the only one in the area with money’ so it seemed like a logical step to follow in his footsteps. Today, his own plumbing business is the most recognised brand in the industry. It employs 150 people and, at last count, was turning over £15m.

Charlie left school at 15 to start his four-year plumbing apprenticeship and by the time he’d finished he’d already built up a small network of customers and enough tools to start his own venture in 1979.

“I’d learned from the old plumber that you should run a very personal service. The fact that he was reliable, honest and presentable, but also good at his job just made for a winning formula. I knew that if I could be half as successful as he was I’d be happy.”

With a few clients already on his books the venture needed a name. At the time he was renting a basement from an estate agent called Pimlico Properties and as all his early jobs were in that area the name stuck. There was enough work to keep Charlie going in the district for quite some time and it was nearly three years before he needed to take on staff to expand geographically. Eager to maintain stringent quality control over his customer service, growth was steady but slow, and he restricted his recruitment to one or two engineers a year throughout the early life of the company.

The grow slow mantra is one that Charlie stands by three decades later and it explains why he’s never given in to the temptation of outside investment for the sake of expansion. “I don’t want outsiders involved in my business. I’ve never met my bank manager and I never will. My view is that outsiders will try to control things when you borrow money so if you don’t need loans steer well clear of them.”

The reluctance to take on investment, as well as a dogged determination to retain his crown as customer service king, also means Charlie has no plans to move out of the London area for the foreseeable future. “If we had a base in Birmingham or Manchester we just couldn’t control the quality of the service as well. It takes a long time to build up a name but you can lose it overnight.”

The plumbing giant’s doctrine on company reputation is underpinned by the Pimlico Bible which all new recruits are given, and all engineers must carry with them. It contains a strict code of service covering everything from personal presentation and punctuality, to dealing with complaints.

“We have a very lengthy induction period with our plumbers and they either get it right or they don’t work for us. It doesn’t suit everyone but we try to pick the right type of people in the first place, and our staff often end up staying with us for years.”

However, it’s not just the presentation of his engineers that he concerns himself with. The company’s 120-strong fleet of vans are a fundamental weapon in Pimlico’s arsenal. With their personalised number plates and striking logos they are the company’s biggest advertising tool by far and there’s an in-house team to keep them in spotless condition, inside and out.

“Plumbers are known for having dirty old unreliable vans and it’s a great excuse to use when you’re late for a job. But first impressions count and if people see you turning up in a nice clean van the chances are you’re going to do a great job.”

The focus on reliability is also what will see the company safely through the recession, according to Charlie, who is confident the firm will continue to grow despite tougher trading conditions. And this confidence in the company’s potential is also keeping him firmly in the driving seat.

His views on exiting the business are much the same as his opinion on outside investment – it’s simply not an option. “I don’t ever plan to sell. If you build something up from scratch why would you want to part with it? I’ve built a successful, profitable business. A jockey never jumps off a winning horse.”

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