LORD KARAN BILIMORIA, CBE
FOUNDER OF COBRA BEER
I use to work with Lord Bilimoria in London, at UK India Business Council. That was one of the best jobs I ever had! As a part for the amazing team, my lovely boss (Sharon Bamford), learning, responsibilities, contacts, politics, trips… I enjoy working with him. He was always there, sharing knowledge, energy and passion.
He is a strong man, transparent, patient, very charismatic and a man with admiring and lovely values.
I always love to go back to London and share a coffee with Lord Bilimoria at the House of Lords, which once was my “home” because of my job. Is just amazing! Great memories and great experiences thanks to the wonderful team we were led by Lord Bilimoria.
Thanks so much Karan! I just love the way you are, help, teach and think!!
How do you remember your childhood in India?
I remember moving, moving around a lot because my father was in the army. After I was born, he went to Africa with the United Nations for one and a half years. The army was a great influence at our home in Hyderabad, a city in Southern India.
Hyderabad was always our base. We had a large old family house that my great grandfather had purchased from a nobleman in Hyderabad. We had a lovely family life! Despite my father being away so often, we were always a very close family.
During my childhood, I went to seven different schools – one of them being in South India, in the Nilgiri Hills at Ooty, the Hill Station.
That was a British boarding school and I really enjoyed that, it was great fun. It was a very sporty place – but I also studied very hard as well!
What does Polo mean for you?
I was put on a horse from the age of two!
Two? So young!!
Yes – two, although that was mainly just being taken on rides. I learned how to ride properly when I was 11. Then I learned how to play polo, which I loved, and I have played ever since, including when I was at university.
I played for the Cambridge University team and later captained and organised the team’s first-ever polo tour of India. The country’s then-Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, wrote us a welcome letter and opened some doors for us. I came back from that polo tour with some sample polo sticks. I started selling them in London to Harrod’s and Lillywhites. Polo really was the start of my business life!
The story of Cobra Beer its amazing… Could you tell me about your feeling at the very beginning? Driving alone, with a few boxes in a car…
Have you ever imagined arriving that far? Have you ever thought: OMG what I´m doing?
Yes! Of course, I used to feel that – well, I used to feel that a lot. My friends were working for Goldman Sachs or whatever and I was very different, working on my own with my partner
They were driving in BMWs and I was driving in a battered old Citroën car that we’d usually have to park around the corner from the restaurants that we were delivering to because we didn’t want to be seen with it!
Whilst I was driving along, I would sometimes think – Am I doing the right thing? What if this doesn’t work?
However, I never ever doubted that I would succeed!
In part, what I had was faith in my idea and when I got the initial reorders from the restaurants I knew there was a demand for the product and that gave me confidence.
Initially, you set yourself goals. To me, first, to sell 5,000 cases of beer in a month was like a big deal – now, the company is always talking about when we are going to reach a million of cases a month. Things move, your targets evolve, but at that time, 5,000 cases was a big thing to hit.
People always have different aims and ambitions when they are starting a business, and they are quite often very different.
Some people wanted to set up a small business and never grow it – it is very much a personal thing. Personally, I always wanted to build a global brand – I always had big goals! Even so, you have to focus on one step at a time.
What would you say to the entrepreneurs that would love to follow your steps?
First and foremost – you’ve got to really be committed to your idea. When you decide to go into business, you can’t go in half-heartedly. I tried for six months to work and earn money in a proper job and also do my business in the evenings on the side and the weekends – that simply doesn’t work.
That’s what I was doing when I was importing polo sticks – I was working for a friend’s business and then I thought – if I want to set up a business, I’ve got to make it a full-time commitment.
When I started Cobra, my business partner and I dropped all the other projects that we’re doing and just focused on Cobra. Even back then, it was such a big project.
You’ve also got to have a vision of where you want to get. To brew the finest ever Indian beer and make it a global beer brand was my mission in the beginning and it still is now.
Would you give me a personal advice for launching my blog?
You’ve got to have a very clear business model how you’re doing to do it.
The internet is great because you can do things really easily, but so can anyone else.
You have to ask yourself what you can do that is different from everyone else online and is going to enable you to earn money using the talents that you have at your disposal!
You’ve got a fantastic personality – use that to your best advantage and be creative!
The secret of Cobra Beer is…?
The secret is simple, very simple – taste! Cobra is less gassy than lagers and it has an extra smooth taste which is because of its very complex recipe. Like German beers, Cobra has four main ingredients; malted barley, yeast, water and hops – but what sets us apart is that we also have various different varieties of hops, along with a combination of rice, maize and wheat. It’s a really difficult way of making a recipe and that’s why Cobra Beer is so smooth. That is the main reason why the beer is one that appeals to men and women alike and why it has a globally appealing taste and goes well with all food – especially with curry.
I am proud today that Cobra has won 78 gold medals at the Monde Selection Awards since 2001 – so we’re clearly doing something right!
That’s why it’s the best beer in the world!
It’s one of the best beers in the world, I can’t say the best but it’s certainly one of the best.
You almost lost your business three times – that means losing everything. What is necessary to keep on going and never fall?
To get through the tough times is really difficult.
The last time – at the start of the Great Recession – was the worst.
You have to have the resilience and you’ve got to have the toughness to face it.
You have to have the guts.
You also have to have a good team to support you through it – luckily, my team supported me hugely at the time.
Most importantly, you’ve got to have your family supporting you. My wife, Heather, stood by me at such a difficult time and supported me phenomenally well.
Most importantly, you’ve got to believe in yourself and in your principles – the keyword is integrity.
Ethics and values are really important to you…
Yes – ethics, values, belief, a good team and good family support and yourself. Again, the word integrity.
You work here in House of Lords since 2006?
Correct! I’m very impressed! You know everything about me!
I’m a stalker 😉 )
I’m still impressed;)
What do you like of being part of this? Parliament, House of Lords …
Firstly, it’s a real honor and a privilege. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to be appointed to the House of Lords and since being appointed, I have learnt so much. Every time I come here, I learn.
My fellow peers are some of the most eminent world authorities in their area of expertise, and we have members of the House that have made their mark in just about every field you can imagine – we have lawyers, business people, scientists, academics, engineers, former Cabinet Ministers…
The former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, used to be here every week. I once made a speech when she was sitting as close as you’re sitting to me now.
You have journalists, authors, scientists, doctors, engineers, priests, everything you can imagine in the House, and they are some of the leading figures in the world, it’s amazing.
Wow! Have you ever imagined being here?
I’ve always been interested in politics so I always thought if I wasn’t a businessman, I would have been probably in politics. I didn’t think I would go to the House of Lords at a very young age, I never thought that!
When I joined, I was one of the four or five youngest peers (smile)
Even now, I’m one of the younger ones! The average age is 70.
Could you tell me a bit of Cobra Foundation? I believe education it´s really important to you… (Add link)
We support lots and lots of different projects – a lot of the support is done through giving beer for fundraising events. For example, we’ve supported Magic Bus over the years – which is a charity that supports street children in India.
We always provide the beer for their annual fundraising dinner at the Dorchester hotel.
Another example is the Lord Mayor’s Big Curry Lunch, which is held every year in Guildhall in Central London. One thousand people come, including members of the Royal Family and the leaders of the Armed Forces – again, we donate the beer every year for the Army Benevolent Fund – the soldier’s charity.
We’ve also recently announced a new project with the ethical water company, Belu. We’ve launch a joint branded Belu-Cobra Foundation water which we are now going to be placing in as many Indian restaurants as possible. We supply Cobra to 98.5% of the licensed Indian restaurants in the UK, that’s almost 7,000 restaurants. By bringing the water into as many of these restaurants as possible, we hope to sell a tremendous amount of it, with 100% of the profits going to Water Aid in South Asia, providing clean water and sanitation throughout the region.
“Higher education is one of our biggest exports” are your words. Do you think education is the most important value that a country has?
The most important thing! One of the things why Britain has the best higher education in the world along with America. It´s such a competitive edge.
We put so much emphasis on our higher education but I still say we need to invest more. We don’t invest as much as we should and yet, we’re still one of the top two in the world.
Have you heard about Catalonia and the independence? What do you think?
In Scotland, we have a similar independence movement going on – the government there held a referendum in September which, if it had passed, would have allowed them to become a separate country – thank God it didn’t happen!
It’s a good thing the United Kingdom stayed together. It would have been disastrous because at the moment the Scots have the best of both worlds. Scotland is very much a country with its own heritage, they have their own Parliament, they have control over their universities (their students don’t pay any fees, but English students do) – they have control of their National Health Service, but they’ve also got the backing of the Bank of England, we share the same defence forces and Embassies around the world. Scots are at the top table of the world thanks to being part of the United Kingdom. Together, we are a member of the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, the G7, the G8 and G20 – all that from through being in the UK.
If Scotland wasn’t in the UK – they would be a small little country with none of that influence. I would imagine that the same would be the case with Catalonia.
What about doing business with India?
India now is at a very important place because of the new Prime Minister and the government having an outright majority, Mr Modi. He is so far sending out very strong signals around the world about his plans to take India forward and they’re very impressive plans. He seems to be decisive; he seems to be a man of action. I have a lot of faith that India will have its growth rate increase from 5%, which it is at the moment, to hopefully double that very soon!
And what about business between India and Spain?
There is surely lots of potential. I would imagine that things are going to only improve from now on. Look at the UK and India. So much has happened in ten years between the two countries. I’m sure similarly, a lot more would happen between Spain and India in a variety of different fields, Yes, Spain is going through a tough time recently, but so are many of the European countries. Spain has so much going for it as well as a country.
What is your dreamed fairy tale?
That there’s no one poor, everyone’s uplifted from poverty and there’s peace and no war and conflict.
We have people looking after the environment, looking after each other, not fighting with each other and everyone is happy and content – that’s probably ideal.
Beautiful world indeed!
What you would say to our readers?
I cannot put it better than the motto that I have on my coat of arms in the House which is: “Aspire and Achieve”. That has also been the motto of Cobra Beer, which is ‘To Aspire and Achieve, Against All Odds, With Integrity’ – you have to have the willingness and the drive to succeed, but you have to have your principles as well.
Where and when are you the happiest?
When I’m with my family.
What is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is again, something happening to my family.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Hah – you never fully grow up! You’re growing for your whole life!
What makes me smile?
The people who make me smile the most are my children. They can have me laughing, absolutely laughing at some of the things they say and do.
I find it very difficult to cry.
What makes me want to really cry is when I travel to India and you come across the really abject poverty. It hits you and if you’re driving through the night and you see families and their children sleeping on the street – it really hits you when you see it.
What would be the title of the book of your life?
The title of the book that I wrote on my life in business was called ‘Against the Grain’ I think that that is very appropriate because I have always gone against the grain.
What do you like of your friends?
I am fortunate enough to have some really good friends, I love the fact that you can always rely on them and they’re there for you in the good times and the bad times, they’re loyal.
A toast to?
What do you think has been your greatest achievement?
Would you challenge me to do something?
Would I challenge you to do something?
What do you do that you think you shouldn’t be doing?
You turn it around, that’s not fair!!
Then I challenge you not to do it!
For example, do you smoke?
Then you shouldn’t smoke!
I promise when I get pregnant, I’m going to quit.
There we are! We have a deal!
Something very disgusting that you don’t like?
I don’t like deceit and lies and people who are not truthful and honest.
Do you regret something?
I have a few regrets. For example – I regret sometimes not having done a PhD.
It´s never too late!
True, I could still do it!
Back to university!
I still might do it!
Thanks so much Lord Bilimoria! It´s always a pleasure talking to you, seeing you and having a coffee here, in House of Lords! Beautiful memories!!