Beer of the realm: Cobra founder Lord Bilimoria talks creativity, GM crops and cracking pubs

Harriet Green
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Karan Bilimoria delivered beer while his friends were working for Goldman Sachs
If you haven’t enjoyed a Cobra beer yourself, you’ve probably had a curry with someone who has. Karan Bilimoria founded Cobra Beer in 1989. It’s a well-documented story by now: the entrepreneur and life peer saw the need for a beer that was less gassy than lager but not as heavy as ale. Cobra claims to be as refreshing as the former, and as smooth as the latter. And now, the company supplies over 98 per cent of the UK’s Indian restaurants.
Cobra is an example of good things coming to those who wait – and work hard. Lord Bilimoria ascribes much of his success to his upbringing, and the lessons his parents passed on: “I learnt leadership from my father, and business from my mother’s side. My great grandfather was an entrepreneur who started a successful business and lost it three times. But he had a belief which meant that he never gave up.” To this day, Bilimoria still uses his motto: “To aspire and achieve.”


When Bilimoria started out, it was self-belief that underscored his perseverance. Delivering beer in a clapped-out Citroen 2CV when his friends were working for the likes of Goldman Sachs wasn’t easy for the 26-year-old. “What I’ve done has always been against the odds. In the early days, I had no credibility. All I had to offer people was my belief that I was going to create the best Indian beer ever brewed.”
Being a one-man band with a big idea but very limited resources, Bilimoria quickly found his creative side. As a child, he was repeatedly told he wasn’t a creative sort, but he’s keen to impress that setting up a business teaches you otherwise: “If I’d just applied what I learnt at business school when starting Cobra, it wouldn’t have worked. If you’ve got an idea, try it out – make the commitment and give it everything. If I can give one piece of advice, it’s that you should never give up.”


But it’s important to add, he says, that there will also be times when you do need to know when to give up. And this is something he’s learnt the hard way. In May 2009, Cobra went into administration, following a period that was focused intently on pursuing growth. Brewing giant Molson Coors paid £14m for a 50.1 per cent stake in the company, with Bilimoria retaining ownership of the minority share. Cobra committed to paying back every one of its creditors, despite not, in every case, having a legal obligation to do so.
But running too fast – and then tripping – has not deterred the firm from striding onwards. For Bilimoria, there’s no reason that, in 10 years’ time, Cobra shouldn’t be as popular in pubs as Peroni is today. Earlier this year, it launched its largest ever ad campaign, featuring “The Boss” – a fictional beer and bra magnate whose ultra-slick lifestyle is designed to make consumers see Cobra as a beer you could drink anywhere.
The product “isn’t the hard bit” for Cobra, explains Bilimoria. To widen perception, you up distribution – and that’s where the marketing push has come in, he says. “I spent months working on getting the recipe for Cobra exactly right. When people think of Cobra, I want them to think of a fantastic beer, not just a fantastic curry accompaniment.” And while it is still currently a small player, Cobra increased its market share in pubs by 77 per cent last year.


The beer magnate’s business drive extends beyond his own company. His support for early-stage businesses will see him judge the Investec Food and Drink Entrepreneur of the Year award later this month. And his commitment to other startups is long-recognised. Back in 2004, he was knighted for his services to business and entrepreneurship and, two years later, he was elevated to the House of Lords.
A British business advocate and supporter of the GREAT Britain campaign, Bilimoria believes we don’t “shout from the rooftops enough. People should say, ‘We’re proud of Made In Britain.’” He’s also keen to encourage more innovation in the manufacturing sector, and in agriculture – hardly surprising for a man whose beer contains four crops, and who employs 2,300 people in the UK. Not afraid to go against the grain, he’s excited by the UK’s progress when it comes to genetically modified (GM) crops. “Because of the EU, we couldn’t consider it. But now, the government is saying we could.” Just last month, the first GM, nutrient-enriched crops were harvested in Britain, as part of a landmark trial.


Another area Bilimoria has felt compelled to speak out on is immigration. Born in India himself, he’s long campaigned in the House of Lords for the reinstatement of the post study work visa, which allowed overseas students to remain and work in the UK for two years after graduating, but which was “shortsightedly scrapped” in 2010. “One of the most precious things about Britain is its diversity and its role as a point of congregation and creativity in the world,” he says. With estimates from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills showing overseas students are worth around £13bn to the UK economy, the recent fall in numbers, for the first time in 21 years, “should worry us all”. While other politicians are calling for students to be removed from the government’s target to reduce net migration, Bilimoria would see “a target to increase the number of international students coming to study in the UK.”
Although already dividing his time between business and politics, Bilimoria is keen to share the work Cobra is doing aside from selling beer – using beer to raise money for charity. The Cobra Foundation was set up in 2005 and provides health education and support to South Asian communities affected by natural disasters. “I believe that success means giving something back,” he explains. “We’ve given away more than £100,000 of beer.” Leading by example, Bilimoria has little time for business attitudes that don’t factor in a sense of wider responsibility. “You shouldn’t just be the best in the world, but the best for the world. It always surprises me how few businesses do anything.” And sure enough, in conjunction with World Water Week, Cobra is set to make an announcement. And this latest move – a new sustainability project – is something Bilimoria is very excited about.


Company name: Cobra Beer
Founded: 1989
Job title: Founder and chairman
Turnover: £54m (2012)
Age: 52
Born: Hyderabad, India
Lives: London
Studied: Commerce at Osmania University, accountancy at London Metropolitan University, and law at Cambridge University
Drinking: Cobra beer – what else!
Eating: I love all sorts of food, especially Indian. My favourite dish is Hyderabadi Biryani
Reading: Snowball, by Warren Buffett
Favourite business book: Losing My Virginity, by Richard Branson
Heroes: My great grandfather, DD Italia
First ambition: To be an entrepreneur or a general
Motto: “To aspire and achieve with integrity.”
Awards: Cobra Beer has received 78 gold medals at the Monde Selection awards

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