Charlie Mullins: plumber to the rich and famous
Charlie Mullins bunked off school as a child to earn money fixing pipes. Over 50 years on, he sold his plumbing business for more than £125m. Now he has his sights on becoming mayor of London.
Charlie Mullins, the self-styled “plumber to the rich and famous”, once observed that his most prudent investment was the bag of tools he built up as an apprentice. “Every time I had some money, I would buy another tool.” They have stood him in good stead, says the Financial Times. Mullins, 68, has sold his 90% stake in Pimlico Plumbers to the American “home service” giant Neighborly (itself owned by KKR) in a deal worth between £125m and £145m. His son, Scott Mullins, who retains a stake of about 10%, will continue as chief executive. Last month, Scott praised his father “for creating the business out of nothing”.
Three years ago, Mullins vowed he would “never sell” the company he began in an estate agent’s basement in 1979. But stuff happens. Four years after tying the knot in Las Vegas, Mullins and his second wife divorced this year. Meanwhile, the fortunes of Pimlico Plumbers have advanced considerably. “Covid-19 helped lift the company to another level,” he told the BBC, pointing to an increase of 2,000-3,000 jobs a week. The firm currently makes annual revenues of around £50m. “It now needs to go international.”
Inspired by the Thatcher revolution
Mullins has always been a fighter, says The Independent. Born in 1952, the son of a factory worker and a cleaner, he grew up on the tough Rockingham estate in Elephant and Castle, south London – “not the nicest part of town”, he says. “Getting out of that life was the main thing that drove me on when I was kid. I knew I didn’t want to spend all my life on the Rockingham.” He got into plumbing at around the age of ten – bunking off school to work with a bloke called Bill. In the eyes of young Charlie, Bill had it all: “He had a car and a motorbike, and went on holidays, which was a lot more than most people I knew at that time.” Leaving school without qualifications at 15, Mullins completed a four-year apprenticeship before buying a second-hand van and striking out on his own – inspired by the Thatcher “revolution” and “the mantra of the self-made man”, says The Sun.
He saw a clear market gap in a trade populated by cowboys. “I set up Pimlico as the opposite of all the things people say they don’t like about plumbers. It’s never seemed too complicated to me – turn up on time, be neat and tidy, clean up your mess and make your pricing transparent from the beginning of the job.” Some of his customers from back then are still with him and the firm’s Lambeth base is “adorned” with testimonials from stars including Joanna Lumley, Diana Rigg and Joan Collins. “Good work and don’t forget to flush!” wrote the late snooker star Alex Higgins.
The man who would be mayor
This winning formula ensured that, by 1986, Mullins was turning over a million: aided by the sort of brand recognition that only a “Rod Stewart-style blond barnet” can confer. Still, on his way to becoming a London institution, Mullins admits to “a bit of a bump in the road” in the early 1990s “when a combination of a recession and a bunch of w***ers in pinstriped suits almost forced me to go skint”. He almost lost his house, says The Independent, but the firm was restructured and “we’ve never looked back since”. He still distrusts bankers: “For me, they are crooks in suits.”
Mullins, who has his own suits made in Savile Row, has never “shied away from controversy”, says The Daily Telegraph. An outspoken opponent of Brexit (“I’d take another pandemic over Brexit every time”), he fought and lost a 2017 court case over the status of Pimlico’s “self-employed” contracted workers, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, becoming a test case for the gig economy. Now that he has more time on his hands, he may yet resurrect a plan to run for London mayor. “It’s clearly a big job, but London is my city and it’s given me so much I’d like to give something back. I’m good at solving problems and I see plenty.”