Q&A: Charlie Mullins, Pimlico Plumbers, on how he's grown his business significantly despite the economic gloom

Why is Pimlico Plumbers doing well when so many other businesses are struggling?

Customers can't afford to take chances anymore. Rather than looking around for a cheaper price, they'll go for a company they trust. People are more cautious on how they're spending money and would rather spend more on trusted people, someone who's been around for many years and can guarantee their work, like Pimlico Plumbers.

We've also increased our staff number, meaning we now have better engineers and a better call centre. This investment allows us to spend more time with a customer as we can get to the jobs quicker and spend more time on the phone.

Were you worried about investing during a tricky economic climate?

Yeah, very concerned, it was a gamble. But we tend to try and do things that aren't obvious. A lot of companies cut down on staff, but then they can't provide the service. We opted for a bigger call centre, more staff and more mechanics.

This expansion has paid dividends. The customer wants more time on the telephone with people, more assurance and back up. We've always been different; we do the opposite to what people associate with "bad", when it comes with plumbers. Standard plumbers are scruffy, we're smart; they turn up late, we're on time; they have a dirty van, we've got a good van; they don't give a price, and we're transparent.

You've starred in Secret Millionaire and Show Me Your Money. Why do you do all the TV appearances?

We're a really transparent company and have nothing to hide, so I'm happy to do the TV stuff. It's a great advertising tool as it gives lots of people an insight into the company. It makes us more recognisable. Recognition is the key to success and these shows gives us recognition.

How do you hold onto your staff?

We have a good working environment here; it's a family business. We employ girlfriends' boyfriends or someone's husband, or so-and-so's son-in-law - on that basis we're all drinking from the same teapot. I've got one grandson here, two son-in-laws, four children, one wife and other people here have got their son or their grandson working here.  This makes everyone feel like they want to make a success of the company.

We pay our staff very well too. Pimlico Plumbers are probably the highest-earning plumbers in the world. You pay for what you get.

We also have a 24-hour subsidised canteen with canteen ladies cooking breakfast and lunches, and they leave sandwiches out for engineers at night. It keeps people in here, stops them leaving the building and provides somewhere for them to have a break, relax and socialise.

How do you retain existing customers while chasing new ones?

80% of our customers are returning customers and it's retaining these customers that have got us through the recession. We have a policy here, that once someone becomes a Pimlico customer, they become a Pimlico customer for life. I wish I had realised how important it is to retain customers years ago. [Read more customer retention advice.]

If you focus on this, then new customers will follow, as personal recommendation is the best way to get work.

How do you manage to stay busy in traditionally quiet periods?

We've added other services to the company. We now do roofing, electrics, carpentry and drains. These extra businesses keep going throughout the year. We give discounts for customers to use in the summer too. In quiet times we reduce our prices - now more than ever people want good deals

Why are you such a big fan of apprenticeships?

Undoubtedly an apprenticeship is the best thing ever. We've come up with an apprenticeship scheme that we've spoken to David Cameron and Boris Johnson about.

I think they should turn the job benefit money into a job allowance. Give it to an employer and they can put that towards hiring an apprentice. Rather than giving people money to do nothing, give it to an employer who'll take youngsters on.  My last comment from David Cameron was, "It's not as simple as you say", but I'm convinced it will happen.

How are you planning to continue to grow Pimlico Plumbers over the next year?

We've bought another piece of land next to our headquarters and we're negotiating to buy a bigger bit too. This'll mean we can have a bigger parking area and if we get that, then we can bring on more vehicles.

What would your advice be for those looking to launch or already running businesses in 2013?

I keep being asked when's the right time to start a business and what I say is the best time is when you're ready. Also you must be prepared to take risks. If you sit on the fence then you're not going go anywhere.

Finally, you need to be prepared to put in some hard work, and your product must be quality. There will always be a market for quality. Just look at Savile Row - it's been around forever and it isn't going anywhere. So make sure what you provide is top quality and you'll be fine.

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