Starting a plumbing business in the UK: top tips from Pimlico Plumbers' Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins started Pimlico Plumbers in 1979 in the basement of a Pimlico estate agent. Today, it’s London’s largest independent plumbing company, carrying out around 2,000 jobs a week. He gave us his top tips for starting a plumbing business.

It’s no secret that Charlie’s a big fan of apprenticeships as the best route into a career in plumbing. But once you’ve got an apprenticeship and NVQ under your belt and you’ve got a decent amount of experience, you may decide that it’s time to start out on your own.

How to start a plumbing business

According to Charlie, a passion for your trade is where it all begins:

“I believe if you’re determined enough and you concentrate on what you’re doing, and you’ve got the enthusiasm and the willpower, and the will to want to succeed, I believe you can.”

From a young age, Charlie knew he wanted to be a plumber, and he also knew that he wanted to be his own boss and make decent money. There’s no clear roadmap for starting a plumbing business, Charlie says, but there are some crucial ingredients:

“I think it’s all about determination, attitude, your personality comes into it… it’s a matter of applying all of that. And if you enjoy the job you’re doing you’re going to be a lot more successful.”

Keep things simple

“It ain’t that Pimlico Plumbers are doing anything clever, it’s just that so many are doing it wrong,” Charlie says, “When I started out my idea was to change the stigma, the idea that people have about the plumber.”

That means turning all the stereotypes about tradesmen on their head: turning up on time, being smart and polite, charging a fair price and leaving the job tidy. That’s really all there is to it, Charlie says:

“Keep things simple. You’re turning up, doing the right job and getting paid for it. That’s all you gotta do. And obviously following the right guidelines. It’s always better to do things the right way.”

And while there’s always going to be a certain amount of bureaucracy and red tape involved when you’re starting and running a plumbing business, there’s really no point complicating it any more than you need to:

“Don’t complicate it yourself, that’s the art of it,” Charlie says, “if it’s complicated, don’t get involved with it.”

Build a brand

“Get identified - get a recognised brand” is one of Charlie’s top tips for when you’re setting up a plumbing business.

Pimlico Plumbers’ vans are instantly recognisable as they travel around London, with bold blue and white branding and a prominent logo. The plumbers themselves all wear smart blue and red uniforms.

These are things that are important to get right from the start, Charlie explains: “It’s important to have a uniform (ideally something different), a sign written van, photo identification with you, and really be proud of what you’re doing.”

Tidiness is important for making a good impression, and it also extends beyond appearance:

“Turn up in a lovely uniform, have a proper invoice, a proper tidy van. Now, people expect you to be smart and tidy. I don’t believe any business can be successful unless you do that. Smart uniform, smart van – usually means smart job.”

When you get knocked down, get up again

That’s not to say that setting up a plumbing business is easy. You need dedication to make it work, Charlie says:

“The main thing is to be confident, but realistic and determined. Like a boxer: if he gets knocked down, he’s gotta get up again and fight on. That’s a bit like when you’re starting out in business - you hit loads of problems but if you can get through them, get up, then you’re gonna come out the other end at the top.”

Get public liability insurance

“Plumbing is a serious business, and you’ve got to take the job seriously and get yourself organised,” Charlie cautions, noting that many people overlook the importance of public liability insurance:

“That’s a must have - it’s a must have because it doesn’t matter how good you are at the plumbing, it can flood the place, it can be disastrous, so it’s so important.”

And as he points out, it’s not just property damage that can lead to a public liability insurance claim, but injury too:

“The other thing of value with the public liability is obviously if somebody has an injury - falls over your tools…. you know, crazy things we’ve had where someone’s even fallen down a manhole.

“It doesn’t matter what it costs – it’s one of those things you’ve gotta build into your rates. You’ve got to have it. If you’re working without it you’re an idiot.”

Is it more difficult to start a plumbing business today?

We asked if Charlie reckoned it was more difficult to start a plumbing business now than it was in the seventies when he started his business, but he said no:

“I think it’s easier now. You’ve got more help - programmes, a lot more on the internet, a lot more books…”

In fact, Charlie’s even written a book himself; a memoir called Bog-Standard Business, which includes advice for starting a plumbing business.

In 2016, Charlie says, there are lots of other entrepreneurs to idolise. In his day, his local plumber was the only person he had to look up to: “He probably was an entrepreneur, but we didn’t really use that word then.”

Do you have any top tips for starting a plumbing business? Tell us in the comments.

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