Self-made millionaire and Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins shares how he made his first million and how he’s grown his business significantly despite the economic gloom

Charlie Mullins: How I made my first million

Self-made millionaire and Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins shares how he made his first million.

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By Emma Wall

3:45PM BST 28 May 2013

Charlie Mullins was Britain’s first “millionaire plumber”. Pimlico Plumbers was started from a basement of a London estate agent in 1979; it now employs 200 people and has an £18m turnover.

Charlie decided at the age of nine that he wanted to be a plumber, after noticing that his local plumber was well respected, had a great lifestyle and money. So, he took to ‘bunking off’ school to earn “two bob a day”’ working with the local plumber.

After leaving school at 15 with no qualifications – “a big mistake, I should have left at 14,” he said – and completing a four year apprenticeship in plumbing Charlie started out with a second hand van and a bag of tools. In 1979 he started Pimlico Plumbers from a basement of an estate agent in Pimlico.“I set out to change the image of the plumbing industry and get rid of the stigma associated with it – that of plumbers who turn up late, driving rusty old vans, not wearing uniform, backsides hanging out their trousers, bad workmanship and ripping off the customer,” said Charlie.

Charlie’s personal investments include property in Spain and a private jet timeshare.

“My main investment this year will be into Pimlico Plumbers,” he said in January. “We have bought more land next to our depot and we’re going to use it to create a garden for the local community. I am not a fan of gardening myself, but I do like to enjoy them once they are landscaped, so we’re going to get a local college to design and plant it up.”

“On a personal basis, I have just purchased a new property in Spain which needs totally refurbishing. It is a big project so it will take most of the year. It is next door to one we already own. The idea is that visiting friends and family can stay in it.

“I am in talks with a private jet company called NetJets to buy flight hours, which is like a timeshare in a private jet. I hate our airport system – it is so inefficient and you lose a whole day just for a three-hour flight. I’ll be back and forth to Spain a lot this year, so I think this may even save me money.”

Charlie said that only downside to his success is others’ expectations.

“You have to be more cautious,” he said. I’m always being invited to things by Lord This and Lady That because they think I’m going to spend a few quid, but 99pc of those I turn down.”

Q&A: Charlie Mullins, Pimlico Plumbers, on how he’s grown his business significantly despite the economic gloom

25 January 2013 by Mike

The news today is that the UK economy shrunk in the last quarter of 2012, according to the first draft of government figures. While those behind Comet, HMV and Jessops will nod solemnly in agreement, Charlie Mullins can afford himself a wry smile.

His business, Pimlico Plumbers, romped to a record-breaking quarter, raking in £5m in sales between October and December and putting the company he founded in 1979 on course for overall sales of £18m for the financial year. He shares his advice on how to grow a business in tough times, customer retention, and keeping staff happy.

Why is Pimlico Plumbers doing well when so many other businesses are struggling?

Customers can’t afford to take chances anymore. Rather than looking around for a cheaper price, they’ll go for a company they trust. People are more cautious on how they’re spending money and would rather spend more on trusted people, someone who’s been around for many years and can guarantee their work, like Pimlico Plumbers.

We’ve also increased our staff number, meaning we now have better engineers and a better call centre. This investment allows us to spend more time with a customer as we can get to the jobs quicker and spend more time on the phone.

Were you worried about investing during a tricky economic climate?

Yeah, very concerned, it was a gamble. But we tend to try and do things that aren’t obvious. A lot of companies cut down on staff, but then they can’t provide the service. We opted for a bigger call centre, more staff and more mechanics.

This expansion has paid dividends. The customer wants more time on the telephone with people, more assurance and back up. We’ve always been different; we do the opposite to what people associate with “bad”, when it comes with plumbers. Standard plumbers are scruffy, we’re smart; they turn up late, we’re on time; they have a dirty van, we’ve got a good van; they don’t give a price, and we’re transparent.

You’ve starred in Secret Millionaire and Show Me Your Money. Why do you do all the TV appearances?

We’re a really transparent company and have nothing to hide, so I’m happy to do the TV stuff. It’s a great advertising tool as it gives lots of people an insight into the company. It makes us more recognisable. Recognition is the key to success and these shows gives us recognition.

How do you hold onto your staff?

We have a good working environment here; it’s a family business. We employ girlfriends’ boyfriends or someone’s husband, or so-and-so’s son-in-law – on that basis we’re all drinking from the same teapot. I’ve got one grandson here, two son-in-laws, four children, one wife and other people here have got their son or their grandson working here.  This makes everyone feel like they want to make a success of the company.

We pay our staff very well too. Pimlico Plumbers are probably the highest-earning plumbers in the world. You pay for what you get.

We also have a 24-hour subsidised canteen with canteen ladies cooking breakfast and lunches, and they leave sandwiches out for engineers at night. It keeps people in here, stops them leaving the building and provides somewhere for them to have a break, relax and socialise.

How do you retain existing customers while chasing new ones?

80% of our customers are returning customers and it’s retaining these customers that have got us through the recession. We have a policy here, that once someone becomes a Pimlico customer, they become a Pimlico customer for life. I wish I had realised how important it is to retain customers years ago. [Read more customer retention advice.]

If you focus on this, then new customers will follow, as personal recommendation is the best way to get work.

How do you manage to stay busy in traditionally quiet periods?

We’ve added other services to the company. We now do roofing, electrics, carpentry and drains. These extra businesses keep going throughout the year. We give discounts for customers to use in the summer too. In quiet times we reduce our prices – now more than ever people want good deals

Why are you such a big fan of apprenticeships?

Undoubtedly an apprenticeship is the best thing ever. We’ve come up with an apprenticeship scheme that we’ve spoken to David Cameron and Boris Johnson about.

I think they should turn the job benefit money into a job allowance. Give it to an employer and they can put that towards hiring an apprentice. Rather than giving people money to do nothing, give it to an employer who’ll take youngsters on.  My last comment from David Cameron was, “It’s not as simple as you say”, but I’m convinced it will happen.

How are you planning to continue to grow Pimlico Plumbers over the next year?

We’ve bought another piece of land next to our headquarters and we’re negotiating to buy a bigger bit too. This’ll mean we can have a bigger parking area and if we get that, then we can bring on more vehicles.

What would your advice be for those looking to launch or already running businesses in 2013?

I keep being asked when’s the right time to start a business and what I say is the best time is when you’re ready. Also you must be prepared to take risks. If you sit on the fence then you’re not going go anywhere.

Finally, you need to be prepared to put in some hard work, and your product must be quality. There will always be a market for quality. Just look at Savile Row – it’s been around forever and it isn’t going anywhere. So make sure what you provide is top quality and you’ll be fine.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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