Charlie Mullins is probably the best known plumber in the country. He founded Pimlico Plumbers in 1979, and built it into a well-known brand in the capital, with a particular following among celebrities with leaky pipes. It now turns over more than £30m.
An outspoken opponent of Brexit, Mullins funded Gina Miller’s article 50 legal challenge. He’s also been in the courts over a former self-employed contractor, Gary Smith, who successfully argued that he was in fact a worker, entitled to such rights as sick pay and holiday pay. Today, he’s won the right to take the matter to the Supreme Court, in what could be a landmark ruling.
MT: How did you react to the Court of Appeal's decision?
Mullins: There’s not enough clarity. In our case they said we have too much control. What difference does it make what colour uniform he’s got on or what colour van he’s driving? They said because it’s your uniform and your van, that makes him your worker. That’s craziness. That’s like saying I’m going to pay someone who wears a red coat more than someone with a blue coat.
MT: What did you think of Matthew Taylor’s recommendation of a ‘dependent contractor’ status in his recent review of working practices?
Mullins: I don’t think he’s got it yet. Yes, you’ve got to be given certain rights, but on the other end of the scale there’s the chap who wants to be self-employed. If our chap was a dependent contractor or PAYE, he’d probably be getting £25 an hour; at the moment he’s getting about £45.
We’ve built in holiday and sick pay. These guys know it and they’ve got a choice. We don’t believe they’re dependent on Pimlico Plumbers. They’re skilled workers, which means they could leave us and get a job the next day. But we’re okay, because everything Taylor’s asking people to do to take on a dependent contractor we’re already doing anyway, way over and beyond.
MT: You started as a self-employed plumber but obviously then started employing people. How did you find the transition?
Mullins: If I’m being honest, it was a nightmare. I was like a tiger in a cage, stuck in the office. It took me a long time to adjust to it, but I realised you can’t do both – if you’re the captain of the ship, you’ve got to be on the bridge, not the boiler house. Once you accept that, your business moves on.
MT: Do you still miss plumbing?
Mullins: Very much so. I found it simple. I’d learned that trade, I was pretty good at it, I enjoyed the respect and satisfaction it brought. But being honest, now I wouldn’t swap back because I’ve got used to this role. I do very much PR now, and I’m involved in the expansion side, and just generally being around in the building. Anyone who’s got a company of ten people should get involved in PR, that’s the only way you can grow.
MT: You’ve said before that you nearly went bust during the early 90s recession, but since the 2008-9 recession you’ve expanded significantly. What lessons did you learn?
Mullins: I remember my book-keeper, an elderly woman I had on board, saying if you get through this recession, then four to five years down the line you’ll benefit. And we did. When a recession comes now, we understand you can’t have dead wood, you can’t waste money. What got us through was our regular, existing customers. There are no new customers out there in a recession. Now, between 75 and 85% of the people that book us have used us before.
MT: How will Brexit impact your business?
Mullins: I don’t think it’s going to affect Pimilico Plumbers too much, as we don’t employ too many from the EU, but I believe it will affect the economy and that affects everyone. There’s a massive shortage of skilled workers already. If we put a clampdown on that, I believe construction in London comes to a complete standstill. We’re talking about another runway [at Heathrow]. That’s not going to happen if we restrict free movement.
MT: What are your plans for the future? Would you expand outside of London?
Mullins: Not at the moment. We’re going to expand a bit more in London – there’s still massive market share to get here. But we’ve got so many options, people saying I wish you worked in Scotland or Manchester. We’ve had offers to set up in Abu Dhabi. Maybe a year from now I would start outside of London. I’m not saying I am, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
MT: What are your top tips for hopeful entrepreneurs?
Mullins: Irrespective of how many good ideas you have or how great your staff are, you’ve got to work hard. A lot of people say ‘oh, but I do’, but there’s working hard and working hard. Another thing is you’ve got to take chances. You can’t sit on the fence in business. My number one tip is employ people. I don’t know many people who are a one man band who are really successful. Employing people is the hardest thing about running a business, but it’s also the most beneficial.