It's a dirty job, unblocking drains, but someone's got to do it. Jim Zockoll was a Pan Am pilot on a stopover in the 1960s when he heard of a plumbing problem at his London hotel. He knew he could fix it with a machine he had back home in the States so he flew it over, rolled up his sleeves, and got on with it. Yesterday, he cleaned up £49m by selling the Dyno-rod business he created as a result to Centrica in a £57m deal.
Clearing drains is a £500m business in the UK, and Dyno-Rod, with its unmistakable pink and black vans, is the biggest brand in the market. It now makes about £6m a year from its emergency plumbing, locksmith and pest control services as well as drain clearing.
Now a fast-talking 74-year-old serial entrepreneur, Mr Zockoll built up Dyno-Rod after being amazed at the major work being suggested by the string of plumbers who had been called out to look at a plumbing problem at the Kensington Palace hotel during a stop over in 1963.
He had used electromechanical rods to poke down drains and clear blockages in his properties in the US and offered to fly some in to Britain for £5,000. The job took 20 minutes and Mr Zockoll saw a major money-making opportunity. But he also continued to fly planes for Pan Am until 1981.
After 40 years of drains, locks, pipes and rats, Mr Zockoll has been looking to get out of Dyno-Rod. But he has baffled and frustrated the business community over the past year with his mercurial behaviour.
He had agreed to float Dyno-Rod on the Stock Exchange last year, but pulled out of the deal because there was "no chemistry" with the City stockbroker he had hired. This summer another deal to float the business was on, with a different stockbroker, but again, at the eleventh hour, he walked away. The stockbroker's £3m fees disappeared, as did his respectability in the City.
Centrica, which already uses Dyno-Rod as its call-out firm for British Gas customers, appears to have offered only about £100,000 more than he would have made from floating the business on the stock market. But that was enough for him to sign the dotted line.
"Lots of people don't always trust getting any old 'Man with a Van' in to work on their house. Jim created a national brand with service level guarantees that people are confident to use," Ian Peters, of Centrica, said yesterday.
Mr Zockoll left the lawyers to put the finishing details on the deal yesterday morning. He was already on his way to the US to attend a high school reunion. He mayalso drop in on some of his former Pan Am colleagues whom he persuaded to invest in Dyno-Rod years ago. About 20 of them stand to share £8.6m from the sale.
Mr Zockoll, who lives in East Sheen, south-west London with his wife, is not known to have extravagant tastes. His biggest indulgence is his Bentley. He has also said he will never retire, recently describing himself as "like a guy on crack".
The money from Dyno-Rod will be invested in his other business ventures. The main focus is a company he runs with his son, Steven. Called Phonenames, it gives companies phone numbers that correspond to the letters on a telephone keypad.
"The whole family has grown up with the Dyno business - I used to answer the phones there as a kid," Steven said. "You'll never stop my dad from working, but I am at least, going to see if he may go down to three days a week."