I hate meetings, they overcomplicate things – surely the answer is just yes or no – BLM interviews Charlie Mullins OBE
Charlie Mullins OBE is managing director of Pimlico Plumbers, the UK’s largest independent plumbing firm which he started in 1979, after leaving school at 15 with no qualifications.
Many sleepless nights
I’ve had many sleepless nights in business, thinking – are we going to be able to pay the bills? Are we going to lose our house? The biggest hurdle came in the 1980s when we nearly went bust.
We didn’t have any structure in place and I was trying to do everything by myself and we owed half a million pounds. I went to two liquidators and one of them said why not fight for everything – which is what I did. I don’t think I was serious enough up until then but this changed everything.
My instinct for business is inspired by my background. I came from a very poor one and there was no money around at all. There was a plumber who lived in my area called Bill Ellis. He was a good guy, he had a nice house. Instead of going to school I would go and work for him and he instilled a work ethic and sense of right and wrong in me.
He told me to become an apprentice plumber because I would never be out of work and I would make lots of money. He gave me the direction that I needed in life and I believe that is true of most people – that they just need to be given some direction.
Now that the business is successful and up and running it isn’t as hard as it looks to keep control of its day to day running. To help with this we came up with a do’s and don’ts book with thoughts on how it should be run and we called it the Pimlico Bible. I’ve learnt over the years that I can’t do everything myself and there are great people out there and you must get them on-board and involved in helping the business grow.
What drives you on
Money is a great driver for me. It’s not all about money but it gives you freedom and you can buy wonderful things in life. I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich and I know which one I’d rather be. I think perceptions are also changing around people with wealth and how it isn’t a terrible thing to have money and be successful. There is now more of a realisation that the person who has money most likely employs a lot of people and their lives are improving too.
The current Prime Minister – at the time of writing – isn’t connecting enough with businesses. When David Cameron was in power I was regularly invited to Downing Street and I felt I was being listened to. He seemed to understand the message that the more people you employ the better it is for everybody.
There are too many obstacles put in front of business owners. We also need more clarity on the Gig Economy. There is a high-profile case we’re involved in where a plumber, who worked for us, demanded sick pay and holiday pay, even though he was a self-employed contractor. Unfortunately the Court of Appeal agreed with him, which is why we’re appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.
I think meetings are very simple – most of the time people sit around looking at each other and are frightened to say anything. You can end up sitting there for three hours and come out of the meeting wondering what it was all about. I can answer any question in three seconds. The answer is almost always yes or no.
Remain in the EU
I was very vocal about remaining in the European Union. Many people thought it was because I employ EU workers, but this has nothing to do with it. I only employ a handful. My reason was because I believe we need people from mainland Europe to come here and fill vacancies. People have the idea that immigrants are taking our jobs and stopping UK citizens from working, but that isn’t the case. It’s the benefits system that is stopping people from working.
When you’ve made it
I’ve never thought that I’ve made it in life. I don’t tell myself that I have because if I do then I’ll take my finger off the pulse and sit back. Other people tell me about what I’ve achieved but I don’t recognise it. I still have the hunger to be better and learn.
I’ve had lots of business propositions too, but I only get involved in my own business. The more I put into Pimlico the more I get out of it. People come to me and say I’ve missed out on this opportunity or that one, but I’m fine with that – if it’s that good they’ll be able to make a success of it. The next stages for the business are to concentrate on expanding in London and the areas on its outskirts.
My key advice to anybody running a business and looking to scale it up is to keep it simple. Turn up on time, do an excellent job and keep focused. It’s also important to recruit the best people around you.