Charlie Mullins: 'I should have left school at 14'

Straight from leaving school, Charlie Mullins headed for London's affluent neighbourhoods to make his fortune in plumbing.

One of Charlie Mullins's biggest regrets is that he left school aged 15 to start an apprenticeship as a plumber: "I should have left at 14." Mullins, now 57, completed his apprenticeship before setting out on his own at the age of 19. He grew up in Camden, north London, but decided to set up his business in Pimlico, an affluent part of south London.

"I thought it would be a good idea to follow the money and work in an area with lots of rich clients. The area was going through a lot of change with flats and houses being renovated." As the 1980s housing market boomed, so did Mullins's business, Pimlico Plumbers.

He targeted affluent customers and built his business around them. "A lot of plumbers had a bad name. I made sure mine wore uniforms, turned up on time and acted professionally." By 1988, sales were approaching £900,000 a year.

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But then the recession hit. "It was a big shock, we almost went bust." Looking back, Mullins realises that it was a breakthrough moment for the firm. "Until then, we'd had it easy, and there was lots of business. When the recession came, I had to make staff redundant and cut costs." That brush with commercial death encouraged Mullins to reorganise the business for when things picked up.

"We were too old-fashioned. We didn't have proper accounting structures and we allowed customers to buy things on credit." Mullins changed all of that and he also brought in electricians and painters and decorators so that he could start offering his customers a more complete service.

The new approach worked well and soon the firm was moving to larger premises. Over the years since then the company has grown, despite various challenges that have taken out lesser rivals.

For example, Pimlico Plumbers was unaffected by the influx of cheaper competition from eastern Europe "our customers expect a certain level of service that a one-man band operating from a mobile phone won't be able to offer". It also continued to grow during the recent downturn in the British economy. "We were in a much better financial position this time around and were able to weather the storm."

It hasn't all been plain-sailing. The decision to open a branch in Marbella to serve British expatriate homeowners has backfired, with the operation struggling as the Spanish housing market has collapsed.

However, overall the business has done well. It now employs more than 200 people and has an annual turnover of £19m. But despite that financial strength, Mullins has no plans to expand nationally and is happy to focus on London. "We have 6% of the London market, which shows that there is still a lot more business for us to win here."

Mullins's main focus these days is youth employment. He's just launched an apprentice programme to train young plumbers. "That's the best way to secure the future of the company by making sure we've got some of the best plumbers of the future. It's something we need to be doing more as a country too."

Two of his grandchildren are on the course, meaning that in total ten of his family members are involved in the firm. "I'm not going to be here forever and one day my children will have to take over. They've done a great job so far and are one of the reasons this company has got where it is today."

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.