Lord Karan Bilimoria
Baron Bilimoria, Karan to his friends. Builder of internationally recognised drinks brand ‘Cobra’ beer, which he built with guts, determination, and a £20,000 student debt. This is Karan Bilimoria.
“Empires are built on trust.”
Born and brought up in Hyderabad, the capital of the state of Telangana in Southern India, Karan’s father was in the Indian army and his mother’s family were a business family. His father was commissioned into the Gurkhas – a soldier force of South Asian origin. Karan counted himself lucky to have been brought up amongst the Gurkhas, including two Victoria Cross winners from the Second World War. They were a great inspiration for him.
Another source of inspiration was his maternal great grandfather, who was in the liquor business. Even though he nearly lost his business three times (which would also go on to happen to the future Baron), he did a lot of public service, was a great philanthropist, and a great family man with a very large family.
“in many ways I’ve followed in [my great grandfathers’] footsteps, probably because I’ve been so inspired by him from my earliest memories”
Lord Bilimoria first realised he was an entrepreneur when he was an eight year old at school in south India. There was “a dictate” in the school that meant everyone would have to learn Malayalam as a second language. All his teaching was in English, and Malayalam was a local language of the state of Kerala. He remembers questioning why he had to do this?
“So I said to my parents, “I don’t want to learn this language, because it’s going to be of no use. They said, “Don’t disobey. You’ll be caned again. Go and do as you’re told.” I’ve got a suggestion.” I said, “I don’t want to learn Malayalam but I do want to learn Hindi, because Hindi is the national language of India, and I will have to study it later on anyway, and it will be of use to me throughout India and for the rest of my life. Why can’t I learn Hindi? “Well, they don’t have any Hindi teachers in the school.” I said, “Well, why can’t we hire a Hindi teacher?”
And his parents listened to him. They spoke to the headmaster, and within a month a Hindi teacher was hired and all 26 students in the class were learning Hindi.
At the age of nineteen Karan graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce Honours degree from Osmania University in Hyderabad. He then moved to London on a scholarship and received a diploma in accounting from the London Metropolitan University. He then went on to study Law at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
Whilst at Cambridge, Karan played on the Polo team and organised their first ever tour of India. It was during this time that Karan entrepreneurship came to the fore. Noticing that the polo sticks in India were different and of better quality, he began importing them from India to Britain, selling them successfully to Lilywhites and Harrod’s.
He began experimenting with other imported goods, but these were not as successful. But by this point, another idea had already taken hold. The idea was inspired by his time at University going out for Indian food with his friends.
Karan felt the beer available to compliment Indian food was either too gassy (as a lager) or too bitter (as an ale), and so his simple idea was to create a beer that had the refreshing qualities of lager, with the drinkability of ale – all to better accompany Indian food.
After finishing up with his import export ventures, Karan, along with his childhood friend Arjun Reddy, started Cobra Beer.
India happened to be integral to the Cobra brand, and of great importance to its development. Early on the Cobra beer founder had an introduction with a brewery in India and were able to work with an incredibly successful brewmaster. They developed the beer from scratch, and formulated a unique recipe with exactly the right characteristics.
“It took a year to develop the beer, and we took the time to get the quality right. We now have three breweries in India, along with our joint venture partners Molson Coors, and India is one of our most important markets. I also take inspiration from the resourceful Indian approach to innovation.”
Whilst this was promising, Karan had a student debt of £20,000 and began borrowing money from various sources. Once the beer was made and imported, Karan began distributing the cases himself, 15 at a time across London in his battered Citreon 2CV.
The lack of funds also meant Karan had to get creative with Marketing. The UK was in an economic recession and penetrating the market would call for an innovative approach. Indian curry was becoming popular at the time so Cobra was marketed as the perfect drink to go with it. Karan made deliveries himself to restaurants and it was a hit with the customers.
Within five years, sales revenue reached one million and Cobra was being stocked by restaurants and supermarkets up and down the UK.
Aside from his business ventures, Karan Bilimoria currently serves as Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and is President of the Confederation of British Industry.
In 2004 he was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to business and entrepreneurship.
In 2005 he was given an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University.
In 2006 he was appointed an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the House of Lords and was created Baron Bilimoria, of Chelsea in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (with his own coat of arms).
In 2020 he was elected as the President of the Confederation of British Industry – a UK business organisation, which in total claims to speak for 190,000 businesses.
He is the first Zoroastrian Parsi to sit in the House of Lords.