Charlie Mullins feels vindicated. The plumbing tycoon has just sold his Pimlico Plumbers company for £145million, bringing his total earnings from the firm to £200million. Along the way, the outspoken entrepreneur has faced brickbats for everything from his views on politics, business, Covid and the environment. And he hasn’t forgotten his harshest critics.
‘People say I don’t know what I’m talking about, ‘he’s only a plumber’ and all this s***, that ‘he’s a mug’,’ Mullins says. ‘What I have to say now is who’s driving the Bentley and who’s driving the Mini? I’ll always be the plumber, but now I’m the plumber that has had £200 million of money through his hands and, you know, he drives a Bentley and flies in a private jet and stays in the best hotels in the world.’
Looking around his apartment, Mullins has certainly put his money where his mouth is. Understated it is not. There are framed photos of him with the last three Prime Ministers and signed pictures of the Queen, Prince Charles, the footballer Pele, singer Tom Jones – who lives upstairs – and Mullins’ hero, Margaret Thatcher.
Driven: Self-made millionaire Charlie Mullins, right with a chauffeur in his Bentley, says he flies in a private jet and stays in the best hotels in the world
Meanwhile, a flashing jukebox is set against one wall; huge brightly coloured quartz stones are everywhere; there’s a statue of a skeleton sat at a bar holding two bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne; a sculpture of a spilt ice cream is on the floor; and a huge Paul Oz portrait of Winston Churchill signing V for Victory hangs in the living room. Opposite his bedroom, across the Thames, the MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross looms large, which Mullins says makes him feel ‘very secure’.
In other words, the self-made millionaire isn’t afraid to show off the trappings of success after hauling himself from literally working in gutters to being a business tycoon.
‘It’s not been easy and there’ve been casualties along the way. Two divorces. I worked too hard,’ he laments, sipping a pink protein shake on an electric reclining sofa. ‘What I’ve realised is to be that successful there has to be casualties – it could be your family, marriage, friends, mental state.’
His sale of the Pimlico empire he founded in 1979 surprised many in the business world. The 68-year-old has been the very public face of a firm that punched above its weight in terms of publicity because Mullins is so forthright.
A sprinkling of stardust helped, with Daniel Craig, Dame Helen Mirren and Simon Cowell among its many celebrity clients.
‘We did better than we expected last year. We proved we were Covid-proof as well as recession-proof and kept growing,’ Mullins says. ‘The time is right to take it national and international, and if I’d have stayed it would’ve been another five years of my life. I didn’t want to leave there in my box.’
Trademark: Pimlico Plumbers vans have become a common sight in London
He sold a 90 per cent stake to Neighborly – a US home services group owned by private equity firm KKR – with his son Scott retaining about 10 per cent and the position as chief executive.
But just four weeks later, there’s already a tinge of seller’s remorse.
‘I think I sold it too cheap if I’m being honest,’ Mullins says. He also has reservations about the new owners, who beat off competition from suitors from the Middle East, France and the UK.
Making a point: Charlie under the huge Paul Oz portrait of Winston Churchill signing V for Victory hanging in his living room
‘They’re not going to be able to keep it running as a family business and that’s a shame as that’s why many people use it,’ he says.
‘If they dilute it and don’t offer the service people expect [Scott] won’t want to stick around. The unfortunate thing is Americans are not very personal, they’re just bottom line people. I have people [inside the business] ringing up left, right and centre to say it’s not the same.’
He says some staff ‘have jumped ship because it’s not a family business no more’. But with his fortune secured, the path is clear for Mullins to pursue political ambitions.
Last year, he aborted plans to run for London Mayor, in part because of business commitments. He says: ‘I regret it. [Sadiq] Khan has done nothing for London – he’s destroyed the roads. But I’ve got to be 100 per cent in on it. If I’m still alive in four years time I’m going to go for it and you know who I want in my corner? Nigel Farage. The geezer is brilliant. He’s a winner and a lot cleverer than he’s portrayed.’
Mullins would run on a ticket of free travel for apprentices, scrapping the congestion charge and ‘getting rid of these bloody cycle lanes’. As for matters of higher office, Mullins has switched camps. The arch-Remainer and former Conservative party donor was supportive of Boris Johnson’s 2019 Election campaign, but now wants someone with a ‘business brain’.
‘He’s not the right man no more,’ Mullins says, shaking his signature mop of hair, which has more than a touch of Rod Stewart about it. ‘We need someone we can trust. He’s done so many U-turns and caused uncertainty and did not send a strong enough message.’
Vista: Opposite his bedroom, across the Thames, the MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross looms large, which Mullins says makes him feel ‘very secure’
After sitting next to Sajid Javid at a dinner, Mullins reckons the health secretary is ‘PM material all day long’, saying: ‘He’s very working class. The man’s come from nothing and has a lot of common sense.’ Mullins believes that one of the Government’s biggest errors has been the confusing advice around working from home.
‘I feel that’s the biggest mistake since the war,’ he says. ‘I mean, come on – you don’t build a great city like this,’ he gestures out of the window down the Thames, ‘and keep people working from home.
‘Now look at the backlash – mental health problems, people think they’re entitled to just stay at home. It’s costing billions to compensate.’
Taking a stand: Born in Camden, North-West London, Mullins left school at 15 and launched the business after ambitions to become a boxer faded
Mullins argues that children seeing their parents solely working from home will copy them when they leave school. He says: ‘You’ve got to break the cycle. Otherwise it’s like when parents are on benefits and capable of going to work, and the kids say, ‘I’ll do that too’.’ It’s a typically uninhibited view from the businessman who made headlines across the world on announcing Pimlico’s ‘no-jab, no-job’ policy earlier this year. He’s gratified by the fallout.
‘It brought us new business. Customers were asking for plumbers to have tests and be vaccinated. People left the company because they weren’t prepared to have the jab – I said ‘please go somewhere else’. All that these anti-vaxxers were doing was killing people and destroying the economy.’
Will Pimlico Plumbers’ new owners stick with the policy? Mullins says: ‘That’s their choice. But it’s a no-brainer.’
Even if his mooted political career fails to materialise, Mullins has no intention of gliding off into the sunset. He’s considering writing another book, after his 2015 guide Bog-Standard Business. He’s also hoping to bring his plumbing nous to several property ventures in the UK and Spain, where he plans to create a ‘magnificent’ villa on the beach in Marbella.
It was in ‘Marbs’ that the tycoon met singer-songwriter Rachel Lea. He is now advising her on business, and has helped with her rebrand to RaRa. She cites her influences as Amy Winehouse and The Ronettes, and shows me a clip of the video for her forthcoming single Biker Boy on Mullins’ giant silver-framed TV.
He beams with pride as the stylised black and white music video plays, convinced it will make number one.
He intends to bring his trademark no-nonsense business style to this leftfield new venture, saying: ‘A lot of artists are just treated like s***. If you’ve got talent, then you need to be paid accordingly. But you also need to get yourself noticed and that is what I’m offering.’
The pitches for investment are coming thick and fast for Britain’s flushest plumber.
He says: ‘I’m getting lots of people come to me now saying, ‘I’ve got this musical I’m making and I need backing for it’. People know I’ve got money. But I’m not a charity or a bank.’
There are no plans to splash out his fortune, despite the efforts of suits intent on him ploughing it into financial investments.
He does admit he’s dropped £10,000 into a few of his most loyal employees’ accounts, and shows me their surprised, grateful text message responses. One stunned recipient was convinced it was a mistake.
It’s a fitting end to a career which began with Mullins ‘on the tools’ as an apprentice. Born in Camden, North-West London, he left school at 15 and launched the business after ambitions to become a boxer faded. He used a focus on quality of service and transparency in an industry dogged by rogue traders.
‘Our plan was always to get you as a customer and keep you for life with quality, transparency and honesty,’ he says, adding with trademark candour: ‘We didn’t offer anything that was unusual, we just done it the right way.’