4 business lessons I learned the hard way

Charlie Mullins has had his fair share of hard knocks during 40 years as Pimlico Plumbers CEO.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2019

When Charlie Mullins founded Pimlico plumbers in 1979, he had no intention of growing it beyond "a few people that wanted to work for him". Now it’s one of the UK’s largest independent plumbing firms, employing 270 people, with a turnover of £43.3m. 

Mullins has seen his fair share of highs and lows during his four decades at the helm, from weathering the storm of the nineties recession to hitting the headlines in a recent high-profile employment tribunal, Pimlico has just had its best year on record. 

Mullins shares some of the biggest lessons he’s learned from growing a business. 

Build the team that works for you

"The most difficult thing about running the business is employing people. How do you get the right people? It's really a case of just picking them. You learn to trust people and when they come on board you explain how you want to run things. If they’re on the same page as you, you can show them what you expect. 

"You've got to use your instinct and you have to be able to understand people. The best way to tell really is by looking at their CV. Build the team to suit yourself. There's no shortcut to it, it is a trial and error thing. There's no point in putting a round peg in a square hole. 

"I learnt that very early on in business because you try to improvise and you try to fit them in somewhere, but it doesn't work, you either get people working with you or you have to change them. 

"You might have to go through a lot of people to get a good team, but you will get a good team once you find the first one or two because they attract people with a similar work ethic and who want to work in the same way as you."

Once you’ve got them, trust them 

"Once you think you’ve found the people you’re looking for, give them responsibility, start to believe in them and have confidence in them.

"Early on I thought I could do everything myself. I thought I was the best plumber, that I could provide the best quotes and was the best person to answer the calls. I didn’t trust people enough and therefore didn’t delegate. Then all of a sudden you get to a stage where it doesn't feel like there are enough hours in the day.

"The turning point of a successful business is when you realise there's a lot of good people out there and you learn to delegate; you learn to employ these people and you learn to trust them. You have to face the fact that they're better at what they're doing then you are.

"Once you've got people on board, you trust them and you show them that you're confident in them, I think they start to work to your expectations."  

Play for the long term

"Without doubt the recession in the nineties was the most challenging period of my career with Pimlico. The trade totally went and we went as low as we could go and owed people money. 

"It looked like we were going to go out of business, but we fought our way through that process, changed a lot of things and replaced pretty much everybody at the company. 

"If I’m honest we’d probably bitten off more than we could chew and my attitude changed to business then; I realised business is a long term venture - if you come to the front too quickly you’re not going to stay there. 

"Sometimes you can grow too quickly, so just grow slowly and gradually. It’s not about overnight success. The longer you're going in, the better the business is and the more successful you are."

There is no substitute for quality

"We can have the best uniform, the best vans, the best receptionists - but if the person who goes out does a bad job it's all pointless. What people are paying for is quality of service or quality of products. Whatever business you are, quality will always shine through.

"We do 2,000 jobs a week and 75 per cent of those customers are repeat customers. From a service point of view those are very high figures. I'm not telling anyone how to run their business, I'm just saying this is what worked for us - and I realised that retaining customers is the most important thing.

"We have a policy here that once you become a customer, we hope you’re a Pimlico customer for life."


Image credit: AzmanL/getty images

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