Pimlico Plumbers: A very modern old-fashioned fleet
Stopping to chat with busy mechanics during a tour of Pimlico Plumbers’ HQ, managing director Charlie Mullins’ pride in his company’s in‐house fleet management operation is tangible. The domestic maintenance business’s fleet of red, white and blue vans is a familiar site on London’s roads, and is, as Mullins is keen to reiterate, absolutely crucial to the company’s continued success.
Serviced and fully maintained in its own workshop only a short walk from Mullins’ private office, the fleet of nearly 200 fully‐owned Transporter vans receive around‐the‐clock attention from a team of up to 10 engineers. For a medium‐sized business, this might seem an unusual approach nowadays, with a near‐universal move to leasing and outsourced repair and fleet management. But then Mullins has never been conventional.
He acknowledges that outsourcing SMR work could be a more cost effective approach given the size of the fleet, but is adamant that the benefits of keeping the entire operation in‐house far outweigh the potential financial benefits of outsourcing. Reliability of the fleet is everything to Mullins, and he believes this can be achieved nowhere better than in his own workshop, making the operation well worth the additional investment.
“Without our vans we can’t work, so dealing with everything in‐house gives us better control and we can minimise any dead‐time that might otherwise be taken up waiting for vehicles to be collected or driven elsewhere to be worked on,” he says. “We also have a great team here – we’re a 24 hour business and our mechanics are prepared to work through the night on the vehicles, if needed. It’s all about getting our vans back on the road as quickly as possible.”
Running a fleet of identical Volkswagen Transporters means that mechanics quickly become experts at working on the vans, with a number of them even being ex‐Volkswagen engineers. This helps to reduce downtime as issues are identified quickly, and the large, on‐site stock of spares means any maintenance or repair work can be started immediately without the delay of sending out for parts.
Volkswagen’s commercial vehicles have long been favoured by Mullins, and he does not anticipate this changing.
“I did a lot of research when we first ordered Volkswagens 20‐25 years ago, and we still keep our eyes out on the competition but I just don’t believe there’s a better vehicle out on the road for us,” he says. “We’re an upmarket plumbing company, and to portray that image we wanted an upmarket van. Over the years the vans have definitely got better – they’re more comfortable than ever for our engineers and easier to drive. Everything is upgraded now and the design is more stylish; they just ooze class. Our managers are all assigned Golfs as company cars, too. Volkswagen is meeting all our needs at the moment.”
The Transporters are completely modified and purpose built for the company’s needs, including the installation of bespoke racking to secure equipment.
“They’ve also got a great deal of space in them, which from a plumber’s perspective is ideal because there’s room for all the kit and tools in there,” Mullins continues.
“From a delivery perspective the side door is perfect for unloading, and we can pack it full; there’s nothing we can’t get in there that we sell from our merchants.”
Good first impressions
Company vehicles are purchased outright and used by the area of the business best suited to its current condition.
“We don’t sell our vans on because once we’ve finished with them it’s a finished vehicle,” Mullins explains. “We run them for as long as we can – some of our vehicles here at the moment are probably 20 years old. The vehicles go through a cycle of use so they start off life with the plumbers, and are then used for parts deliveries, then rubbish collections, and so on when it’s not looking so spick‐and‐span.”
The appearance of the company vans is something of a self‐confessed obsession for Mullins; every Pimlico Plumbers’ vehicle is washed and valeted at least once a week, with engineers encouraged to drop in more regularly if a job takes them near to the workshop.
“Our biggest advertisement out on the streets of London is our vans,” he says.
“They represent the company and have become a bit of an icon now. We’re upgrading our livery at the moment to make it more modern and keep it fresh, and being able to apply sign‐writing inhouse means we can work on a van every couple of days when it’s convenient for us, and not have to take them off the road to fit around another company’s schedule.
“A lot of our vans have plumbing related number plates, like BOG1 and DRA1N, which people really enjoy. We’ve produced a range of miniature toy vans with the number plates on, and we keep bringing out limited editions every couple of years – we’ve got about eight out at the moment.
Customers like them and they’ve also become popular as a collector’s item in China so we ship a lot out there. It’s a great, fun way to market the brand and people have responded really well to them. I think it shows a real affection for our vans within the London community.”
If a company vehicle is damaged while out on the road, Pimlico Plumbers has a fairly strict attitude when dealing with repairs, Mullins explains.
“If it’s another driver’s fault we deal with any damage on the insurance, but if it’s our driver’s mistake or we can’t account for it we make the driver pay for the in‐house repair at cost price,” he says.
“That means they are going to look after their vehicle better and take as much care as the can under difficult driving conditions. To do the mileage our engineers do without someone nearly crashing into you is tricky and we do get a fair amount of damage, but that’s just the way it is and most of our drivers do very well under the circumstances.”
New starters are assessed on their driving skill level and coached on the unique challenges of driving in the capital.
“It’s getting harder and harder to drive in London – there’s more and more traffic and more restrictions all the time, no entry roads popping up and so on,” says Mullins. “It’s definitely harder for us to get around than it used to be.
Travelling time has doubled and it’s a lot more challenging to get about, and a lot slower moving. Restrictions like the Congestion Charge cause us a bit of grief too, but there’s no getting around them; it’s all part of running a business in London now.”
Despite the complications of operating in London, Mullins is committed to growing the business in the capital. With an expected turnover of °Í30m in 2016 the company’s fleet is expanding to meet demand, with 20 new Transporters on order, and Mullins plans to invest in the vehicle workshop to take on more staff and support the business’s established apprentice scheme.
Pimlico Plumbers’ HQ currently occupies 30,000 sq.ft, and Mullins reveals that he has just received planning permission to add an additional floor to the building, alongside expansion into the surrounding area; “We’ve recently started taking over some of the railway arches over the road to park vehicles in, etc.,” he says. “I can’t foresee us ever moving out of this site because the building allows us to expand as we need, and there are enough premises in the area to accommodate us.
“I’m a great believer in being in one place, with your own fleet management team running the operation, because it gives you total control.”
Keeping on track
The company offers an emergency one‐hour response service, so the ability to track engineers out on the road is crucial to the operation. Each vehicle is fitted with a tracking unit that allows operators back at the office to locate the exact position of each van and assign incoming jobs to the closest engineer.
“There are many times that we’ve been able to get to a job in 10 minutes because the tracking system flagged up an engineer in the area, or sometimes even the same road,” Mullins reveals. “By getting there quickly we can save thousands of pounds for the customer and it improves our reputation, so for us the tracking system is vital.”
As well as helping engineers get to jobs more quickly, Mullins believes the tracking units help to make them safer drivers, too.
“I think it makes drivers behave a lot more carefully knowing that their behaviour is being recorded,” he says.
“It stops people abusing the vehicle, speeding or taking liberties. The fact that the vehicles are sign‐written is also a deterrent because if a member of the public sees an employee driving badly they will very quickly get onto the office about it, and we can very easily trace it back to that particular driver.
“It’s important that we’re respectful on the road and we do not want to get a bad name. It’s tough driving in London and things do happen, but all our guys know about the tracker and that they are very visible to the public which means most of them behave in a way I have no complaints about,” he adds.