Lord Bilimoria founded Cobra beer in his Fulham flat, selling it from the boot of his car to local Indian restaurateurs. Twenty-five years later it’s an iconic, multi-award-winning brand, sold in 98 per cent of the UK's Indian restaurants. So, what are the secrets to his entrepreneurial success?
Some ideas hit with the speed of an express train. Others take a while to ferment – literally, in Cobra beer’s case. “There was no Eureka moment” says Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE of his foaming favourite, originally launched in 1989 as an alternative to the overly gassy beers typically served in UK Indian restaurants. “I wanted to produce a beer that would give the refreshment of lager and the smoothness of ale.”
However, launching an original brand, in what he describes as “a very competitive, entrenched industry with big players going back over centuries” was clearly always going to be something of a tall order. “But we showed we could still come up with a product that was different and better and that changed the marketplace.”
There’s no secret to his success, he says. “No short cuts. You need to work hard.” And the Indian general’s son, who’d started out importing Indian polo sticks, found it tough going at first – travelling door-to-door round Indian restaurants, come rain or snow, ferrying crates of beer in “a battered Citroen 2CV that cost £295, needed push-starting every day and which you could see the road through a hole in the floor!” he laughs. Initially, the mighty Cobra failed to strike. However, as the early-1990s recession loosened its grip, and Indian cuisine enjoyed a massive rise in popularity throughout the decade, relationships were gradually forged, deals were struck with over 100 top restaurants, and the orders eventually came pouring in.
Having – just – weathered the previous financial crisis of 2008 (£75m in debt at one point, and rescued from administration by Molson Coors in 2009) Cobra is now worth more than £50m: a real home-brewed success story. “A great example of Britain’s capabilities in manufacturing excellence,” he says. Not bad for a business originally launched amid £20,000 of student debts.
And today Bilimoria still fizzes with ideas (“there’s always scope for innovation”), regularly taking a pen and paper on long-haul flights to reflect, plan and brainstorm: “Just clear-sky thinking – literally”. A life peer since 2006, he also speaks enthusiastically about the House of Lords: “The breadth of world-class expertise is unlike anywhere else in the world… from science to engineering to academics to lawyers to journalists to politicians to civil servants to armed forces to religious leaders – it’s a privilege to be exposed to those debates.”
Bilimoria thinks everybody has the potential to be a successful entrepreneur – all it takes is a bit of imagination. “Try to come up with ideas,” he says. “If you can get into this mindset you’ll be constantly thinking, looking and spotting ideas and opportunities.” And for those who doubt their creative skills, he stresses, “You have the ability to be creative even though you may not realise it. Throughout my childhood I was told that I wasn’t creative because I was useless at art and couldn’t sing. It was only when I started my business did I realise one can be creative and it’s a great asset… If that’s unleashed, anybody can be an entrepreneur.”
But coming up with ideas needn’t involve building up a head of steam (or beer): “Switching off is the best way. You think, think, think about a problem, you work at it, research it, discuss it; then you have to switch off and suddenly it falls into place. I come up with some of my best ideas when I am shaving or in the shower.”
Ultimately, innovation is his watchword: “If you want to succeed you’ll see the opportunities that others miss” – and the brand he most admires is Cirque du Soleil, for their genius idea of combining various skills and disciplines. “Circus, ballet and gymnastics have been around forever. But they put them all together to create a billion-dollar business that is so different. Why didn’t anybody think of that before?”
Find out more about Lord Bilimoria and the work of the Cobra Foundation: www.lordbilimoria.co.uk