Charlie Mullins OBE is the archetypal entrepreneur having started his business from scratch and then building it into a multi-million pound enterprise. From humble beginnings growing up on an estate in South London, Charlie left school with no qualifications, but after a four-year plumbing apprenticeship he started his own firm, Pimlico Plumbers, which now generates a turnover in excess of £25 million and boasts many well known names among its many clients. For those who want to know more about what makes Charlie Mullins tick, you can order his autobiography that was published last week. We had the opportunity to talk to Charlie personally about his entrepreneurial journey.
We found it imperative to talk to “Britain’s richest plumber”. His journey shows that even from the humblest of beginnings, a good business model can transform your company. We wanted to capture the elements that combined to forge Charlie’s success. We also wanted to get a sense of how Charlie feels about the business landscape today.
Aspiring entrepreneurs looking into a successful entrepreneur’s journey often wonder how the journey began. How did a simple plumber go about building a multi-million pound business? Why Charlie Mullins and not some other plumber? The first thing we asked Charlie was if he believes there was a principle that made him stand out.
Charlie: The answer is definitely “yes”. The plumbers in the UK are definitely the best and most recognized plumbers in the world. But I don’t think I’ve got a magic formula. I think it’s a mixture… it’s like making a cake. It’s all about what ingredients you put in it. You have to try different things and put different things into it. When you get the right mixture you’ve got the perfect cake.
I’m going to say that applies to business. A bit more of that there – a bit less of that here. Over the years that’s what we’ve found. We’ve improved our call center, we’ve changed our uniform, we’ve improved our response time… There’s a very serious effort to make – I’m not going to call it a perfect business but – a successful business. It’s not a magic formula, there’s not a recipe for it, but it’s what suits your business – what suits your customer.
Those of you reading this assuming that Charlie simply got lucky are not alone. It may actually be hard to convince you otherwise. As a matter of fact, we speculated this ourselves. Early in Charlie’s career he received a “big call”. You can watch the video on YouTube. Charlie decided to take a chance with an intimidating offer made on this call. The step he took became the turning point of his life. It’s easy to attribute this moment to pure good fortune but we asked ourselves why Charlie got that call. We also wondered if Charlie did specific things after that call to accelerate his growth or if he himself would say he got a bit lucky. We decided to ask Charlie.
Charlie:I’m not a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the luckier I become. To me luck doesn’t happen. It’s all about persistence and enthusiasm, and the will to want to succeed. I go back to my boxing days when I was in the boxing ring. You don’t get into the boxing ring to get lucky. You try hard and you want to win and you’ve got a lot of enthusiasm. I think it’s the same in business. It’s all about being brave.
In any successful business I believe you have to employ people. My services were more in demand than I could meet. That phone call gave me the opportunity to employ more people that were like me. You must employ, you must expand. I’m not a guy who sits on the fence. You can’t go swimming without getting wet. You’ve just got to aim for it. You certainly need to take chances and employ people.
So what does this mean? Charlie dropped out of school when he was fifteen and eventually started his own firm. Was the Pimlico Plumbers we know today the goal Charlie had when he dropped out of school? Did Charlie plan this degree of success from the very beginning?
Charlie: I don’t say I planned it. I always thought I wasn’t getting anything from school. Certainly I wasn’t that academic. I was always going to be a plumber I knew that from 9 years of age, that’s what I wanted to be. The quicker I could get away from school and get into plumbing the better. My strong subjects at school were metal work and wood work. I remember doing loads of things at school that never helped me in my life!
You still get educated in the workplace I realized that well. I needed to leave school; I was just glad I left at 15 and I should’ve left at 14. I couldn’t officially leave but I might as well have just left. I was building the work base, getting money to live, building up my education and building up my business.
What’s apparent so far is that the beginning of Charlie’s journey wasn’t a plan for riches. He demonstrated extreme clarity of vision from an early age. Once he knew what he wanted to be he pursued exactly that, and underwent a 4 year apprenticeship. Part of the important decision here was choosing what education meant to him (“as long as you can read and write”) and applying himself mainly to the areas that would support his career goal. He obviously took himself very seriously and this element reflected itself in his professional life.
Nevertheless, that can’t be it. Charlie was a plumber; it couldn’t have been all cruise control from that point onwards. We knew there must have been extremely challenging times in building that business and we needed to know how Charlie made it through the dark times in his career.
Charlie: Any successful way is never an easy way. I had lots of problems from day one. A couple things that come to mind in the early stages was having to pay people’s wages. Taking on staff and being able to find their wages was always a worrying thing. The biggest setback was in the early 90s when the recession came and I’d borrowed a quarter million pounds from the banks and they said they wanted their money back. All of a sudden they said the asset wasn’t there and they put a lot of pressure on us. In business, you’re never going to have a smooth ride.
I think my boxing career sort of applied in my business life. If you’re in a fight of course you’re going to get bashed up, of course you’re going to take a few punches, of course you’re going to get knocked on the floor. There’s no smooth road or easy way in business. You’re going to take some knocks. If you come through you’ll come through successful.
Charlie Mullins is perceived and described as being a perfectionist and a strict leader. We asked Charlie if he thought that was simply his personal style or if he thought it was one of the demands for being a successful entrepreneur.
Charlie: For me, it’s one of the demands for being a successful entrepreneur. You must be in control of things. If you’re not in control of it, it’s definitely in other people’s hands and it won’t work for you.
It’s a bit like the army. If they haven’t got rules and regulations it’s not going to be a successful army. They’re pretty strict and they’re pretty successful. It’s the same in a business. If you haven’t got rules and regs in place and people do their own thing, God knows where it’s going to wind up.
There’s got to be a leader and there’s got to be a strong leader. People will take notice and apply their own abilities to it [the business]. I don’t believe you can have a business and run it on a very cozy basis.
We know some of you are probably shaking your head along with 53,000 Googlers. Still, talking to him it’s clear that he’s not a rigid moralist with no sense of humor. The principle is that discipline is needed to be successful in business. Pimlico Plumbers is not a dotcom baby. It’s a plumbing company founded in 1979 that has stood the test of time, surviving 2 global recessions.
And just to make our point a little more, Charlie’s answer to what he finds the most important for entrepreneurs looking for business funding is surprising.
Charlie: Enthusiasm. When I first got into business I was told you can buy plans but you can’t buy enthusiasm. Yes they need a business plan, yes they need to have ideas, yes they need to have a forecast of what they’re going to do. But they’ve got to show their enthusiasm. They can’t just have it written down on a piece of paper. They’ve got to show that they have the will to want to succeed.
I’m going to use the word “enthusiasm”. When we take on people, they can have all the qualifications and all the brains in the world. But if they don’t show enthusiasm in their interviews they don’t get a job with us.
If I wanted someone to fund me or help me out with a business, I’ve got to show enthusiasm. And the enthusiasm has to come from me, it can’t come from a bit of paper.
[At Pimlico Plumbers] we go by attitude, presentation, enthusiasm, and the way they conduct themselves. You have to show all of those leading points if you want someone to fund you in business.
A unique perspective from a unique success. What’s been evident in our past interviews, is the need for a solid team. Charlie touched on that when he spoke about taking chances and employing people. However (in case you don’t think Charlie stressed it enough), what will make that team stand out is their enthusiasm – not the genius of their idea. Before we finished talking to Charlie he said, “Another point that people tend to forget too often is something called hard work.” Don’t forget you can learn even more about the man who wields the million pound wrench in his autobiography – Bog-Standard Business: How I took the plunge and became the Millionaire Plumber.
Join the conversation as we move towards Business Funding Show ’16 in February next year. Leave a comment below and let us know what questions you’re seeking answers to. We’ll make sure we ask the entrepreneurs we talk to in our next interviews! We’re hearing stories first-hand from successful entrepreneurs not just about qualities of good entrepreneurship, but about exactly what it takes to make sure your company is on the right track for business funding.
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