£14.5m to my exes… but I’m still feeling flush! He’s Britain’s richest plumbing boss, with an OBE to boot. Now, in a riotous encounter, Charlie Mullins tells JAN MOIR why he’s not against marriage – but giving houses away drives him round the U-bend
After moving house, getting divorced for the second time and catching Covid last year, Charlie Mullins is riding out the pandemic in Dubai.
The man known as Britain’s richest plumber has been living there since the end of December, holed up in a £1,000-a-night catered villa attached to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
They supply his bacon-and-egg breakfasts, his steak dinners, his regular cups of tea and that means good old builders’ tea — not mint, mate.
‘I don’t go much for the foreign,’ says Charlie, meaning he is not fond of the native Emirati cuisine; not the camel burgers, not the Wagafi bread, not even the hummus.
He is out there alone, now divorced from his second wife, Julie, after they parted last February after only four short years.
Charlie Mullins with his first wife Lynda, left, and his second wife Julie, right, who he parted ways with last February after only four years
He was with his first wife, Lynda — the mother of his four children — for 41 years and both women worked for his company, Pimlico Plumbers, one of the UK’s biggest family-run service and maintenance firms.
‘I like marriage but I’m not sure about this divorce lark,’ says Charlie, with the slightly scalded air of someone who has just been through something. ‘I had to pay the first wife 12-and-a-half mill, plus a bit more,’ he says. ‘The second wife was not such a big deal — just a couple of mill. But you have to give away houses, too, and that hurts.’
Is he on good terms with his exes? He looks a little incredulous. ‘Nope.’
‘Well, you are together and then you are not. You go in different directions and you move on. There is no backstabbing, we’re not at each other’s throats or anything, I just don’t see the need for a continued relationship.’
You get the impression it would be very rare for a blockage to obstruct Charlie’s emotional U-bend. And maybe that is not a bad thing. We are Zooming early on a weekday morning, me from drizzly London, Charlie from the sun-splashed dining room of the villa, complete with view of his plunge pool in the foreground and the famous Burj al Arab hotel shimmering in the distance.
‘It don’t get much better than this,’ he says, fresh from the gym and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. Like the former amateur boxer he once was, the 68-year-old still works out every day — and swims, too — but is keen to stress it is not all fun and frolics under the winter sun.
He is not, he says, like the celebrity influencers, who incurred the wrath of Priti Patel by taunting Brits stuck at home with their poolside snaps.
The Home Secretary has accused them of breaking lockdown travel rules and ‘showing off in sunny parts of the world’.
‘They were all just making themselves busy, floating about saying: ‘Look at me here in Dubai.’ That is not what I am doing. I am not here to swank,’ says the businessman, who is the chairman and majority shareholder of his company, which has a £50 million turnover and employs 450 people.
Charlie has been having meetings here with Nick Barclay, chairman of the hedge fund SW1 Group, with a view to launching an Emirates-based branch of Pimlico Plumbers.
He believes there is a market in catering to the wealthy Arabs and the sun-seeking international diaspora who live there in the desert heat but have problems with their pipes. How is the standard of plumbing in Dubai?
‘In a word, it’s s**t,’ he sighs. ‘It is absolute s**t. Some of the hotels have top quality plumbing, but everywhere else is a mess. I mean, it can’t get any worse, put it like that.
‘There is a demand out here for good engineers and good plumbers because it is all done by untrained people just being told what to do rather than understanding it. No, it is not great here at all. ‘
During the pandemic, Charlie has made headlines by firing around 30 of his staff who didn’t return to work after their furlough payments ended last August. Now he is in the news again for asserting that his workforce must agree to have the Covid vaccine, or else. (He hasn’t had the injection himself yet, but reckons he will pay to get it done in Dubai soon.)
‘No vaccine, no job,’ he said in a television interview recently. ‘When we go off to Africa and Caribbean countries, we have to have a jab for malaria — we don’t think about it, we just do it. So why would we accept something within our country that’s going to kill us when we can have a vaccine to stop it?’
You can whimper on about employee rights all you like — and plenty of people have — but it is hard to argue with Charlie’s brutal post-Covid logic.
During the pandemic, Charlie has made headlines by firing around 30 of his staff who didn’t return to work after their furlough payments ended last August. Now he is in the news again for asserting that his workforce must agree to have the Covid vaccine, or else
With a platoon of tradespeople on call 24 hours a day who must go into the homes of clients to do their jobs, Charlie is the kind of old-fashioned entrepreneur who has always believed that the customer must come first.
His vans, with their personalised number plates such as BOG 1, FLU55H and LAV 1, are a familiar sight on London streets — so much so that he once got a phone call from a Roman Abramovich aide, stating that the Russian billionaire wanted to buy BOG 1.
‘Apparently Bog means God in Russian,’ says Charlie. ‘He wanted to drive around in a car that said he was God, but I wouldn’t sell.’
All of his vans are equipped with sinks so that his tradesmen can keep clean between jobs, and each glove compartment contains a copy of the Pimlico Plumbers ‘bible’ — a rule book governing workers’ conduct and appearance.
‘No earrings, no tattoos, no piercings, no trainers, no dirty vans and no bottoms hanging out of their trousers,’ says Charlie, although ‘bottoms’ is not quite the word he uses. ‘My lot have to be clean cut and tidy in their uniforms,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want them frightening old ladies or anyone else.’
His company is doing well in the crisis, with business up 15 per cent, despite shops, restaurants and offices in the capital being closed — and a Pimlico basic call-out rate of £105 per hour, rising to £200 for unsociable-hour emergencies.
‘Yes, it can be cheaper going elsewhere, but it probably will be more expensive in the long run,’ he says.
Perhaps this is fitting for the only man in the country with an OBE for services to plumbing and a personal fortune estimated at around £70 million.
For those who have seen him pop up on Question Time, participate in breakfast television news programmes or call Jeremy Corbyn ‘a t**t’ on the Today show, it is no secret that Charlie enjoys his wealth; his electric blue Savile Row suits, his Bentley cars, his two homes in Marbella, his cockatoo hairstyle, his little bit of flash — and I don’t mean the stuff you use to clean the bath.
What he loves most of all is his new three-bedroom, £10 million bachelor penthouse in London’s Millbank, complete with wraparound terraces, sweeping river views and ‘a bath as big as a spaceship’.
He says: ‘Oh, it is the best place I have ever lived in in my life. So luxurious, nothing can beat it. I mean there are some very famous people living in my building, Jan. Top people. Entertainers. Lord this and Lord that. And if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for me.’
I first met Charlie almost 15 years ago, visiting the spotless, immaculate Pimlico Plumbers headquarters in Central London to interview him for another newspaper.
Then as now, the reception area was filled with autographed photographs bearing gushing testimonials from his celebrity clients. ‘Good work and don’t forget to flush, Alex Higgins.’ ‘Thank you for mending my leaky loo, Diana Rigg xx.’
Newer clients include Dame Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley, most of the Chelsea football team — and Hugh Grant. That must keep him busy.
Charlie has been a Conservative voter since he started his company with a second-hand van and a bag of tools in 1979 — the year his heroine Margaret Thatcher came to power.
On the day of her funeral in 2013, he encouraged his plumbers to wear black armbands in her honour and still has a statue of her in his office. Over the years, he has donated ‘about £100,000’ to the Tory party, but stopped in 2018 because of Brexit, which he voted against.
‘It was a turning point for me, I didn’t think it was the right move. But it is not true that I have joined the Lib Dems. I am still a Conservative,’ he says.
He has considered running for London Mayor because he thinks the incumbent Sadiq Khan is ‘hopeless’ and ‘anti-business’, not just because his cycle lanes, congestion charges and green agendas have cost Pimlico Plumbers about £750,000 to date.
That Mayoral ambition seems to have been flushed away down the plughole, but it has not stopped The Guardian from calling Charlie ‘an idiot’ and ‘a clown’.
Yes, he can be garrulous and sometimes even ridiculous, but surely he has to be given credit for his success and business smarts? After all, he grew up in poverty on a London council estate, the neglected son of alcoholic parents.
His cleaner mother died young, his father, who ‘pushed boxes around a factory floor’, never once congratulated him for doing well.
‘I became a millionaire and almost kind of famous, but Dad could never bring himself even to mention it,’ he says.
He passionately believes in ‘proper apprenticeships’ as a way of providing jobs and a career for young people — because that is what saved him.
He left school at 15, did his plumbing apprenticeship and thrived, despite the lack of formal education. ‘Look, I don’t run this big company by sitting in the corner, do I? Sometimes people talk to me as if I don’t know nothing. Not to be disrespectful to road sweepers, but I say to them: ‘Look, you ain’t talking to a road sweeper here!’
‘I am very demanding. Very has-to-be. Some of the people who tell me what to do don’t know how to bang a nail in. I wouldn’t put them in charge of a broom.’
His attitude has not changed over the years — but his appearance has. His face is barely recognisable from the man I met all those years ago. ‘I ain’t had plastic surgery,’ he says.
‘Well, a bit of cosmetic, yes. I haven’t got a clue what I had, but I had it when I was around 60. Some new facial thing, yeah. Something like that. I’ve not done nothing major-major. I haven’t had a new head put on or nothing like that. I mean if you paid for this,’ he says, pointing to his face, ‘you’d want your money back, wouldn’t you?
‘But I think it’s great to look good and keep in shape.
‘I’m not in Harley Street every week, but if you ask me have I been up there and had a couple of needles, the answer is yes.’
Charlie Mullins passionately believes in ‘proper apprenticeships’ as a way of providing jobs and a career for young people — because that is what saved him
I love talking plumbing with him, everything from water pressure (‘everyone wants more’) to the coloured suites that have all but disappeared from the nation’s bathrooms.
‘You had your dark blues. Your midnights. The maroons. And, of course, the avocados. That was the Seventies for you. Now everyone wants white.’ Naturally, he always checks the plumbing in every house or hotel he visits (‘Just to see how the pipes run’), and he has noted the change in consumer taste over the years.
‘People want more of a luxury bathroom now, something more like a retreat or home spa. Long gone are the days of just whacking in a shower on the hurry-up.’
He is certainly thrilled with the ‘jets and the marble’ in his new penthouse bathrooms in London.
Asked about his current relationship status, he is single and ready to mingle.
‘I’m not in every night reading a book and watching the telly. I have different girlfriends but it’s not like a playboy lifestyle,’ he protests.
Well, how many girlfriends have you had since you split with Julie?
‘One, two, three? More than one, possibly two, maximum three,’ he says, as though we were talking about installing taps on a bath.
He and his second wife split because of geography. She wanted to relocate from their Belgravia mansion to her homelands of Essex (‘Who does that? Nobody’), but he couldn’t stand the commuting.
‘Two hours each way, it nearly killed me. We might still be together had it not been for that. It put a lot of pressure on the marriage.’
The house he bought near Brentwood is now on the market for £4.75 million. ‘I spent well over a million quid on it, so someone will be getting a right touch,’ he says.
Shall we rub the crystal kitchen sink, complete with pull-down spring tap, and see what the future holds for plumber extraordinaire Charlie Mullins?
He is considering applying for post-Brexit dual citizenship of Spain and he is not ruling out getting married again and sharing the bubbling hot tub of his autumnal years with the third Mrs Mullins.
‘I like having a wife,’ he says. ‘It is more meaningful than just being together. That is the thing. I’m not against marriage — I’m just against giving houses away.’
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