At the annual conference of Britain's ruling Conservative Party, it was impossible to miss Charlie Mullins.
He was the one with dyed blond hair, heavily tanned, wearing the loudest blue suit imaginable and a tie with a vast knot in the same startling, garish hue.
He was accompanied by an entourage as he wove his way through the gathering, nodding and shaking hands with anyone. More ageing pop star than politician, he was there to push the case for the UK remaining in the EU.
He was the cheeky chappie, the good-time Charlie, who spoke how he saw it in his native Sarf London twang. There was something bouncy, energetic and refreshing about Mullins, certainly in that setting.
Not for him the playing fields of Eton and the quadrangles of Oxford. He left school at 15 with no qualifications, the son of a factory worker and a cleaner.
He got a job as a plumber’s assistant. By the age of 27 he had set up his own business, Pimlico Plumbers, the company that has the vans with the jokey registration plates and are decked out in the same vivid colour as his suit.
This week, Mullins, 68, sold his 90 per cent stake for more than £100 million ($136.3m). One of his sons, Scott, will run the company as chief executive. Scott will own 10 per cent of Pimlico Plumbers, which will now belong to US services group Neighborly.
To my mind, Mullins is living proof that if you work hard enough, if you maintain a fierce will and discipline, you can succeed. It's not guaranteed – you may require a degree of good fortune along the way – but there’s also the adage that you make your own luck.
I’ve met Mullins several times. Behind the cockiness and mateyness, however, I’ve always known there to be someone of determination and steel. His is a business, after all, that makes £50.7m a year and employs 400 staff. Show me a plumber who nets that sort of money.
Mullins has expanded beyond straightforward plumbing – now he’s branching out to bathrooms, electrics, heating and cleaning drains. In all, his blue vans are racing to 100,000 jobs at central London homes and businesses every year.
Neighborly plan to expand the Pimlico Plumbers formula nationally and internationally. The founder, meanwhile, who has been spending much of his time in Dubai, will only say he is going to invest in music promotion and overseas property.
Business and management schools may turn their noses up at Mullins but if anyone qualifies as an industry disruptor it is Charlie. When he started out, he was armed with a second-hand van and a box of tools. Overalls, if they were worn, were scruffy and dirty.
Some odd-jobs people are still like that. They turn up at your house and when you answer the door you seriously think twice about letting them in. But not so many these days.
Thanks to Mullins, an entire sector has smartened up. His workers wear neat polo shirts and clean boiler suits. They’re polite and say please and thank you, their hands are scrubbed and they don’t swear. They don’t slink off for a crafty fag or a sneaky pint in the pub – they stay and finish the work. They tidy up after themselves.
They do so on pain of being fired. He’s a tough nut is Mullins. His employees must be double-jabbed against Covid – no vax, no job. His line is that they’re going into homes and offices, often into poorly ventilated rooms, so it is only right they’re vaccinated.
He’s had his scrapes has Mullins; he’s lived it large. But don’t be fooled. I remember the first occasion when I went to his yard not far from Elephant & Castle where he grew up (he called it Pimlico because the name sounded posher) and being struck as to how spotless everything was. Equipment, vehicles, personnel – there was no messing about.
His method was calculating. Take the registrations: around me were the distinctive vans bearing the logo and numbers such as BOG1, LOO 2 WET, FLU55H. Over the years, he’s spent more than £1m on the plates alone. His thinking is clear: it adds to the branding, the identity. They make people smile and that’s a good thing; they’ve a warm attitude towards Pimlico Plumbers. If they can’t recall the name, they know it’s the one with the funny vans. After that, finding the company and the contact details is easy.
What it amounts to is that he’s been able to charge more. His rates are at the top end but, as he would say, you pay for what you get. He spends heavily on training. Pimlico Plumbers, he will tell you, don’t cut corners, will not do a botched job. If they must be called back for whatever reason, they go back, no questions asked – they won’t say they’re now on another assignment and cannot return.
That’s what he maintains. There are some who say Pimlico over-promotes, that for all the polish and marketing, they’re still plumbers and that really, they’re little different from the others. To which the answer is, again, find me another who makes Mullins’ cash.
The exact details of the deal with Neighborly are shrouded in secrecy. For once, the voluble Mullins is keeping quiet. What he will say, though, is that “I won’t need to clean any more blocked drains. I had to make a decision whether I wanted to work for another five to 10 years to grow the business [but] Neighborly can take it to the next level.”
He’s also had a good pandemic, with people WFH and having to call upon his company’s services.
Mullins once said: “I don’t like banks they’re crooks in suits”. That hasn’t prevented him taking a mighty pot of lucre off Neighborly, which is owned by the (non-crooked) financial wizards at ultra-smart, private equity powerhouse, KKR.
For all his talk, he’s not one to turn down an opportunity is Charlie.