Seller’s remorse: Charlie Mullins criticizes the American firm that bought him out

The richest plumber in Great Britain, Charlie Mullins, believes that he has an answer to the problem of traffic jams in the capital – cycle paths. “They empty and punish motorists,” he says. Cyclists, he believes, “rarely run large successful businesses” and therefore contribute little to the city’s wealth, says the London-born founder of Pimlico Plumbers.

His own blue Bentley, with personalized number plates, sits in the car park of the pub where he holds court. It’s one of several comments that circulate freely in the alcove of a West Sussex hostel, from the “stupidity” of working from home to the current government “showdowns” that have tested a Tory businessman’s lifelong loyalty and halted his party donations.

The resignation of Liz Truss was a relief for Mullins, 69, whose hopes of a Margaret Thatcher 2.0 had been dashed by the mini-budget political reversals that had initially impressed him. “The corporate tax cut was a strong incentive for businesses to invest, but its abolition showed weakness and lost people’s confidence,” he says. He will welcome Sajid Javid as her replacement and Rishi Sunak as chancellor.

“If someone makes mistakes or isn’t up to the job, the faster they go, the better. But whoever becomes the leader, the party should start supporting him and drinking from the same pot. They can turn things around if they are honest, straightforward and stand up for their decisions.”

Straight talk is, of course, his own modus operandi. Not that he wants the top job himself, citing the damage caused by Brexit and Boris’ misdeeds as too big a problem. His frustration may soon translate into direct action when he runs for London’s next mayoral election in 2024, although admittedly he is an unlikely winner.

With a fortune of £210m and some strong opinions, he has previously flirted with politics, most notably as a business adviser to David Cameron during the coalition years. However, it is only now, after selling his business for £145m to US home services giant Neighborly last September, that he has felt better suited to pursue his ambitions.

“If the Tories have any sense, they will sign me [as a candidate] but I’ll probably run as an independent,” he says, with gleaming white teeth and a deep tan befitting a self-made millionaire who vacillates between his £10million Thames penthouse and a villa in Marbella.

“I was going to run for office before, but I knew that with every policy and idea that I tried to implement, people would say that it was only for the benefit of my own business. Now I feel that I have more freedom of action.”

It’s hard to imagine Mullins holding back on anything he wants to do. Acknowledgment from the drinkers is met with a gleeful raising of his pint. He says that he is known wherever he is. ‘It happens all over the world. Not many plumbers can say that.”

The business, which began as a one-man group in a basement in 1979 from a used van, became a triumph of brand power and Mullins became a public face.

From the beginning, the mission was to bring more professionalism to an industry marred by traders being “late with the dress hanging off their trousers”. By contrast, Pimlico employees wore uniforms and drove branded vans, while its advertising founder invested heavily in marketing.

This, Mullins says, has achieved a visibility that remains unmatched by competitors “except maybe Dyno-Rod” and has led to a 9 per cent share of the domestic London plumbing market. When he sold out, the business was booming with a turnover of millions of pounds a week, maintaining good performance during the pandemic. He attributed this to a quick response, including a “no-hit-no-job” employment policy for those just starting out.

Having finished on a high, he insists it was time to leave, although with an initial target of £100m in turnover, there is perhaps a sense of unfinished business. “The absence of national thoughts will always be a cause of regret. We dominated in London, but we could have done a lot more,” he says. “I think it would take another five years to make progress in this regard. I’ve been doing it my whole life – my son was there for 30 years – and we agreed it needed new blood and ideas.”

Still, there’s more than a hint of seller’s remorse. He chose Neighborly, a franchise specialist owned by US private equity firm KKR, because it offered the highest price.

But he launches into a stream of criticism, including claims that long-serving employees are leaving. Would he do it all again? “I couldn’t rule out Pimlico Plumbers 2 – not with me, but if family members wanted to go back into the trade I would support them with a new set-up. There are always people willing to pay for quality and there is still a huge skills shortage in this area.”

Budding star: Mullins is supporting fiancee Rachel Livesley's music career

Budding star: Mullins is supporting fiancee Rachel Livesley’s music career

Mullins is a discipleship merit evangelist. His own plumber at the age of 15, leaving school without a qualification, was the making of him. He recalls suggesting to David Cameron that money used for unemployment benefits be diverted to training to ensure higher wages for trainees. He believes it would be timely during the employment skills crisis.

“I was told it would be too expensive, but what about the cost of the crime? You don’t get people to go to work stabbing people in the street. When a young person has a job, it changes everything.”

It’s a mission he’ll revisit if he ever becomes mayor, along with providing free rides for schoolchildren. At the same time, he mixes business with pleasure, mainly in the world of entertainment. He invested in Great British Radio, a new commercial station in Southampton. He also supports the music career of his fiancee Rachel Livesley, known as RaRa, who appeared as a Katy Perry tribute act.

He is delighted to be re-acquainted with music mogul Simon Cowell, who he met on the charity circuit and says was “good enough to talk to us and give us some advice”.

And he’s full of enthusiasm for the various reality shows he’s signed up for, including one called The Naked Millionaire. It boggles the mind, but the details are unfortunately sketchy. Is he really planning to appear on TV in a buff? Nothing is impossible in the world of Charlie Mullins.

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