The Entrepreneur: Charlie Mullins, Pimlico Plumbers
The outspoken business mogul talks leaving school at 15 to build a £20m company, the new parental leave law "massacring" small business, and his biggest luxuries - a Bentley Continental and personal chauffeur
Founder: Charlie Mullins
Company: Pimlico Plumbers
Description in one line: Pimlico Plumbers is the largest independent plumbers and services company in the UK.
Previous companies: None
12 month target: We’re currently at 20% up – so target of around £24m
Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:
- Our focus on apprenticeships is fundamental to our success.
- Our brand is our bond, and so a lot of hard graft goes into maintaining our reputation as the best plumbing and home services company in the UK.
- Keeping 100% transparent with our charges reintroduces trust in our trade.
What is your greatest business achievement to date?
My early experiences as an apprentice shaped my life and success, which is why I believe that today’s business leaders have a duty to bridge the skills gap and make apprenticeships mandatory.
I’m proud to say we currently employ 28 apprentices at Pimlico Plumbers, placing a strong emphasis on equipping these individuals with the skills they need to take our business (and their career) from strength to strength!
In addition, I have been petitioning the government for a National Apprenticeship Scheme and this year I attended the conservative party conference with my apprentices to show the prime minister what a great initiative it is. This was a very proud moment for me.
What numbers do you look at every day in your business?
With demand for our services soaring through the roof, we currently do around 2000 jobs a week. This is the most important number to me because it not only demonstrates our growth but our strong reputation. It also demonstrates that the economy is picking up and that can only be a good thing.
To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
Believe it or not, you can now find a Pimlico Plumber in Spain! Our Marbella division opened on the Costa del Sol just over four years ago and covers all areas from Marbella to Buenavista.
Pimlico Marbella operates in exactly the same way as our London company and is doing really well, however I don’t currently have plans to expand any further. At the moment demand in London is very nearly outstripping supply, so there’ll be no further plans to expand until I have the London market sorted.
Describe your growth funding path:
School was never the right option for me, so at 15 I left without a single qualification and decided to become a plumber. A four year apprenticeship gave me the skills I needed to make it on my own – and a second hand box of tools, an old van and the basement of estate agents in Pimlico meant I had the resources to launch and run my own business. I’ve been a long old journey and a massive learning curve to make Pimlico Plumbers what it is today, but I’ve not looked back since!
What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?
I would have to say that our vehicle tracking system has made the biggest difference. All of our vans are equipped with the system which allows us to see which tradesmen are closest to a job. This has been really important for us in responding to emergencies as our team can deploy the right person to the right job within 10 minutes. When it comes to emergencies, our customers appreciate that kind of precision and organisation.
Where would you like your business to be in three years?
Pimlico Plumbers don’t just fix pipes; in fact our talented workforce can now repair pretty much anything that needs fixing in the home. We have electricians, carpenters, builders, brick layers, plasterers, painters, drain jetters, roofers, and small appliance engineers. We can do anything from fix a tab to refit an entire bathroom, tiling and all. Over the next few years I’d like us to become the first number that you’d call for any household problem, offering a trusted service across a range of sectors, which simply gets the job done right.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?
As a former boxer, I know better than anyone that in order to succeed you have to be prepared to take couple of blows along the way.
When I was 38 I felt unstoppable and had achieved a turnover of £1m – but then it all went wrong. I decided to buy new premises and did so with the help of two loans, an overdraft of £80,000 and my own house up for security. Just as I took possession in December 1990 – recession struck. I nearly went bankrupt and ended up owing the bank more than half a million pounds. I had a young family and the bank was trying to take my house and car.
I had to get tough to get things back on track. Amongst other difficult decisions, I had to let go of staff who weren’t delivering and some of them were good mates – but it was vital to have the right people doing the right jobs. This was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in business.
What was your biggest business mistake?
Plenty of mistakes have been made along the way, but if I hadn’t made them I wouldn’t be where I am today. I left school at 15 but I’ve always said my biggest mistake was not leaving sooner!
Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most?
We need to smash red tape at home and in Brussels, wherever it affects us, and there's plenty of it, believe me. Stuff that makes my depot manager fill out half a dozen forms to move a bit of rubbish about London; and rules that restrict working hours, and force small companies to employ data security experts.
However the worst piece of red tape so far is Clegg's parental leave law. By the stroke of a pen the coalition has massacred small businesses with a universe of bureaucracy that will cause as much turbulence in its administration as in its practice.
I'm in no way against equality but I am not happy that under these new laws twice as many workers as before can now come and go as they please, regardless of the impact to business.
Although most of our plumbers are male, our office is made up of majority female staff. In fact, being a family business, we have several couples who work together on our workforce as well. If everyone at Pimlico Plumbers took advantage of the shared parental leave of up to 50 weeks and several staff took this leave at the same time, how could we be expected to function?
What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Making sure you get paid for the jobs you do sounds simple, but actually, it’s the number one reason why many viable businesses go broke. Don’t be afraid to ask for payment, and don’t start new work or supply more goods to someone who owes you in the hope that you will be paid.
Like most businesses we’d always invoiced customers and allowed them to rack up bills on their account, but at one point when we were struggling we worked out that our customers owed us over £80,000. We immediately switched to payment on completion and haven’t looked back. In addition, if a customer knows they have to fork out on completion, they engage more and police the job better, meaning less complaints and less callbacks.
How will your market look in three years?
In three years I want to dominate the plumbing, heating & home services market in London. We continue to increase our market share in the service industry and I want to keep going. The demand in London is huge, so we are now expanding more than ever. More staff are being brought on every week at Pimlico which will make sure we can take on the demand.
My aim is to take on 500 new staff in two years but I was told I’m crazy, so I went for three years!
What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
If you don’t want to lose business to your competition don’t be so arrogant as to ignore what they are doing, or too proud not to follow suit. In the same vein, pick up on what your competitors are doing wrong and do it better.
When I was starting out the industry had a bad reputation; plumbers were always late, scruffy, making excuses, in dirty vans and overcharging. So I made sure my plumbers were the opposite – prompt, professional, polite and transparent – and what a result! We quickly became the industry leaders and remain so to this day. Look at any highly successful business and you’ll quickly realise they’ve done the same.
That’s a tough call between my Bentley Continental and my chauffer Eric! He may look old, but the grand age of 80 he knows this city better than any satnav ever could.
Executive education or learn it on the job?
I’m a huge supporter of apprenticeships, so I’d have to say learn it on the job! Of course a lot of jobs require the attainment of specialised knowledge but it doesn’t mean that a full-time university course is the best place to acquire it. My early experiences as an apprentice shaped my life, which is why I believe that today’s business leaders have a duty to bridge the skills gap and make apprenticeships mandatory.
What would make you a better leader?
I always say that one of my biggest achievements was learning to delegate. A mistake I made in business years ago was not putting the right people in place, which meant I was trying to do everything myself. As time went by, I realised that the trick to success is to put the right people in place at an early stage.
To become a better leader now I would delegate even more and take on more managers. I definitely realise now the powers of delegation and professional structure to business.
I have to go for my own book that’s coming out in 2015!