Seller’s Remorse: Charlie Mullins Criticizes US Company That Bought Him Out
Britain’s richest plumber, Charlie Mullins, thinks he has the answer to the capital’s congestion: scrap bike lanes. “They lie empty and punish motorists,” he says. According to the London-born founder of Pimlico Plumbers, cyclists “rarely carry large successful companies” in his opinion and therefore only make a marginal contribution to the city’s wealth generation.
His own blue Bentley, with personalized number plates, is in the parking lot of the pub where he holds court. It’s one of the few tirades to run free in the alcove of the West Sussex inn: from the ‘nonsense’ of working from home to the current government ‘mess’ that has tested the entrepreneur’s lifelong Tory allegiance and has curbed party donations .
The resignation of Liz Truss came as a relief to Mullins, 69, whose hopes for a Margaret Thatcher 2.0 were crushed by the policy changes to a mini-Budget that initially impressed him. “Cutting corporate taxes was a strong incentive for companies to invest, and reversing it showed weakness and lost people’s confidence,” he says. He would welcome Sajid Javid as her replacement and Rishi Sunak as chancellor.
“If someone makes mistakes or isn’t the right person for the job, the faster they go the better. But whoever becomes leader, the party must support them and start drinking from the same teapot. They can turn it around if they are honest and direct and stand behind their decisions.’
Talking directly is, of course, its own modus operandi. Not that he would want the top job himself, as he called the damage of Brexit and Boris’ crimes too much of a challenge. His frustrations could soon be turned into direct action when he runs in London’s next mayoral election in 2024, though admittedly he is an unlikely winner.
With a fortune of £210 million and some strong opinions, he has flirted with politics before, most notably as a business adviser to David Cameron during the coalition years. But only now, after selling his company for £145 million to US home service giant Neighborly last September, is he feeling better placed to pursue his ambitions.
‘If the Tories have brains, they enroll me’ [as a candidate] but I’ll probably run as an independent,” he says, with his sparkling white teeth and deep tan befitting a self-made millionaire fluttering between his £10m Thames penthouse and a Marbella villa.
“I had previously planned to run, but I knew that with every policy and idea I tried to implement, people would say it will only benefit my own business. Now I have the feeling that I have more free rein.’
It’s hard to imagine Mullins holding back from anything he wants to do. Acknowledgment from fellow drinkers is greeted with a cheerful raise to his pint. He says people know him wherever he goes. ‘Has happened all over the world. Not many plumbers can say that.’
The company that started in 1979 as a one-man band in a basement with a second-hand van has been a triumph of brand power, with Mullins a willing public face.
From the beginning, the mission was to bring more professionalism to an industry marred by traders who ‘show up late with their asses hanging out’. Pimlico’s staff, on the other hand, wore uniforms and drove branded cars, while the publicity-friendly founder invested heavily in marketing.
That, Mullins says, achieved a visibility unmatched by rivals ‘except perhaps Dyno-Rod’ and resulted in a 9 per cent share of the London domestic plumbing market. Business was thriving with sales of one million pounds a week when he sold, buoyed by a strong performance during the pandemic. He attributed this to a quick response, including a ‘no jab, no job’ employment policy for new starters.
He ends on a climax, insisting it was the right time to leave, but with an original target of £100m in turnover, there may be a sense of unfinished business. ‘Not thinking nationally will always be a pity. We dominated London, but we could have done so much more,” he says. “I think it would have taken another five years to make progress on that. I’ve done it all my life – my son had been there for thirty years – and we agreed it took new blood and new ideas.’
That said, there is more than a hint of seller regret. He chose Neighborly, a franchise specialist owned by US private equity firm KKR, because it offered the highest price.
But he starts with a flood of criticism, including claims that long-term employees are leaving. Would he do it all again? “I couldn’t rule out a Pimlico Plumbers 2 – not with me, but if family members wanted to get back into the business I would support them with a new set-up. There are always people willing to pay for quality and there is still a huge skill shortage in the trade.’
Budding star: Mullins backs fiance Rachel Leavesley’s music career
Mullins is evangelical about the merits of apprenticeship. His own plumber at the age of 15, after leaving school without qualifications, was making him. He recalls proposing that David Cameron transfer the money used to pay unemployment benefits to apprenticeships so that trainees get higher pay. He believes that now would be the right time during the employment skills crisis.
“I was told it would be too expensive, but what about the cost of crime? People who stab people in the street can’t get you to work. When a young person has a job, everything changes.’
It’s a mission he’ll revisit if he ever becomes mayor, along with free travel for students. Meanwhile, he mixes business with pleasure, mainly in the entertainment world. He has invested in Great British Radio, a new commercial station in Southampton. He also supports the music career of his fiancée Rachel Leavesley, known as RaRa, who performed as a tribute to Katy Perry.
He’s excited about a budding acquaintance with music mogul Simon Cowell, whom he met on the charity circuit and said he was “kind enough to talk to us and give advice.”
And he is full of enthusiasm for several reality shows that he has signed up for, including one called Naked Millionaire. The mind stuns, but details are thankfully sketchy. Does he really plan to appear in the buff on TV? In the world of Charlie Mullins, nothing is impossible.
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