03:19, February 17 211 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-17 03:19:09
Pimlico Plumbers founder on Brexit and the future of business

In 2015 you published a book, Bog Standard Business: How I took the plunge and became the millionaire plumber. What first attracted you to plumbing?

I come from Camden Town, north London, from a working-class family. I used to bunk off school and help a local plumber. He was the only person in the area that had a motorbike and a car, nice clothes, loads of money and a nice home. He said to me: “If you do an apprenticeship in plumbing, you’ll earn loads of money and never be out of work.” They’re the words I pass on to others now.

How was Pimlico Plumbers born?

I was working for a place called Pimlico Estate Agents doing the plumbing for the flats they were buying, selling or refurbishing. I never really went out of Pimlico, so people started calling me the Pimlico plumber. The estate agent offered me a room in his basement as an office, and it grew. Soon, I took the whole basement over. We’ve now got about 40,000 square foot. We employ 350 people, and we’re turning over £30m annually.

We then brought all the trades into the business (roofing, carpentry, electrics, tiling, painting) and now have the largest trades service centre in London.

What setbacks have you faced?

Things were ticking along, but then the 1990 recession came and we nearly went under. I’d just bought premises in Lambeth, borrowing at 17% interest annually from the bank and all of a sudden there was no equity in the premises. The bank was putting a lot of pressure on us. I nearly lost my house.

I went to see two liquidators. One liquidator said, “Look, you can just chuck it all in and we’ll have you up and running for £3,000 within about a week with a similar name.” Another one said: “You’re going to lose your house, so maybe you should just fight for it.”

We decided to fight for it. A lot of people jumped ship anyway, but I became a lot stronger as a boss afterwards – I made sure everyone started pulling their weight.

What other lessons did you learn from that?

At that time we had customers owing us £80,000 and I learned that most businesses fail because people owe them money. We changed our terms to payment on completion so we got paid immediately when we finished a job. That has meant cashflow is good. I also learned to be [more exacting] with how people represented the company. I enforced set uniforms and tidy vans. There’s been two recessions since then and we’ve pretty much sailed through them.

How did you find yourself in the public eye?

We took a PR company on around 14 years ago and, all of a sudden, we’d become spokesmen in the plumbing industry. We even had Max Clifford Associates representing us for three or four years.

The most important thing you can get in business is recognition. I don’t know how a big business [like Pimlico Plumbers] can succeed without PR.

You made headlines recently due to a court case regarding one of your former plumbers, Gary Smith. He succeeded in a claim that he was in fact a worker, rather than self-employed. What happened?

Gary approached us 12 years ago to join the company as a self-employed plumber and signed a contract accordingly. He had a heart attack. We managed to reduce him to a four-day week and tried to put him on lighter duties but it wasn’t practical. He wanted to do the same amount of work over fewer days but customers don’t want you in the house after certain hours, and sometimes a job takes five days – we can’t just stop the job halfway through until he’d be back at work again. He decided to leave – we didn’t sack him, you can’t sack someone who is self-employed.

There’s been a string of high-profile cases involving the courts adjudicating around the ‘gig economy’, many of which have been lost by the major company. Why did you decide to go to court?

We know we’re in the right. He tried to argue he was an employee but the courts didn’t [agree with]. But they did say he has worker’s rights. It’s a very grey area.

But we’re not talking about minimum wage – Gary was earning around £80,000 a year. But, all of a sudden, he wanted holiday pay and sick pay and tried to claim on discrimination, that we sacked him because he was ill.

Will you appeal?

Yeah, we’ve already put in the request to appeal. First of all they may not let us, and second we’re going to have a tough job because most appeal courts don’t overturn. But we need to get clarity on where things go from here. There’s so much uncertainty.

We need the government to strongly get involved. We’re trying to call a meeting with somebody in government. In our lifetime it’s always been clear – you’re a PAYE employee, or self-employed. But now they’ve got this “worker” category.

You are familiar with appeal courts, you were a key funder for Gina Miller’s landmark Brexit case against the government regarding Article 50. How did you get involved?

My lawyers [at Mischon de Reya] set up the meeting with Gina Miller. I was there with a dozen others concerned about Brexit. I really liked what she had to say. Some of the people in the meeting were quite quiet. I’d had a 100ft poster put up on my roof saying “Stronger In”. I think she’s a very brave lady so I’m very pleased to have gotten involved with it. I’m very pleased that the judges saw common sense and voted for the MPs to trigger Article 50. I don’t have a problem with Brexit, but let’s Brexit in the best way.

How did people respond to your contributions to the Remain campaign?

We had a death threat via Twitter, directed at me, but I didn’t report it. It’s changed since the latest court case. I think it was a misunderstanding – people thought we were trying to stop Brexit and we weren’t. We just wanted MPs to have some input.

You’re a noted Conservative party donor. Might that change now?

I’ve met Theresa May and she can do a great job. But Brexit might change everything. I believe that in two years’ time, the public will want her out. I think we’re going to have a recession and they’re going to blame her for it. If we go down the pan as a country, then it will change my vote. I have to say it.

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