Lucy Tobin interviews Lord Bilimoria founder of Cobra Beer. He pulls no punches in this interview. The lager lord who is speaking up for Britain.
Cobra’s Lord Bilimoria has strong views on running the country
In what must have been the Indian army equivalent of wheeling out your kids to show them off at a dinner party, the eight-year-old Karan Bilimoria’s father hauled him up to do an exhibition boxing match.
The audience was an entire battalion of ghurkas — Bilimoria senior was commander-in-chief of the central Indian army — the boy had only just learned how to box, and his opponent was the burly 12-year-old son of a Victoria Cross winner.
“He was 50% older than me,” the now-Lord Bilimoria points out. “It was terrifying. All the people watching. But I had to stand my own ground.” In the end, Bilimoria says sadly, “it was a diplomatic draw.”
Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea doesn’t like losing. After moving to England for university in 1981, he’d accumulated £20,000 of student debt before deciding “British lager was too gassy, English ale was brilliant but too heavy for Indian food,” and concocting the idea of a less-fizzy beer to accompany a curry.
Cobra, created with his friend Arjun Reddy, is now a business worth £54 million. It nearly collapsed three times, the latest involving a pre-pack administration and £70 million debts which saw Bilimoria making the unusually noble decision to repay all involved.
Now he’s aiming to usurp Peroni as the world beer of choice in every restaurant in the country and practically every country in the world. And in his spare time, Bilimoria’s in ermine: after being the first Zoroastrian Parsi to join the House of Lords, in 2006, he’s now trying to fix Britain.
His first bugbear is immigration. “The coalition government’s immigration policy is wrong,” the 52-year-old declares: “a crude cap and the target of getting it down to tens of thousands? It’s mad, a very bad way of doing it. This country wouldn’t be where it is without the contributions of ethnic and religious minorities in Britain.”
He speaks, fast and vehemently, from experience, of course, and reserves extra fervour for the issue of international students being counted as part of the UK’s immigration statistics.
“I was the third generation of my family to go university in Britain, and I know the lifelong links that are built between a country and those students,” says Bilimoria, who was also named chancellor of Birmingham University this summer.
“And the money! Those students bring in over £10 billion a year. We should take them out of the net immigration target, and actually try to increase the number of international students here. Unfortunately the government just won’t listen.”
A pause for breath and Bilimoria is riled again, this time about the UK’s cut-stricken dwindling military power: it’s “negligent”, he believes. “In six years’ time, the Army won’t even fill Wembley Stadium. We live in an uncertain world, after Libya, the Arab Spring, now the Islamic State, who knows what next. These defence cuts are very, very dangerous. We’re going to be reliant on reserves — ridiculous, it’s an oxymoron: reserves are not meant to be relied upon.”
But the entrepreneur says he’s speaking up because he loves this country. “We undersell ourselves in Britain, we do not shout from the rooftops enough about the capabilities. We don’t have the Empire any more, we don’t have much national resource left, we only have a population of 60 million, less than 1% of the world, but we’re still one of most prosperous and productive countries. Innovation keeps coming out of Britain. We should appreciate it more.”
Multicultural London is leading the pack, Bilimoria believes, “because diversity is good for business. From the time I started Cobra it’s been like a mini-UN, we have people from over 20 different nationalities, which means you get that diversity of background, and of thinking. It’s very enriching.”
Ahead of his talk at Business Connections, the Standard’s network for small business owners, next Wednesday, Bilimoria says he wants to see more Londoners follow in his footsteps.
“London is the best place in the world to start something,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of support here — so many different networks, the government support, business schools — entrepreneurship is celebrated in this country now, whereas when I came to England three decades ago as a student, it meant being a bellboy or carpet salesman.”
Bilimoria’s closest shave with those stacked odds was in 2009, when Cobra went into a pre-pack administration: “everything we had built up suddenly had no value,” he says. He signed a joint venture with US brewer Molson Coors. “Legally I could have wiped out my creditors, shareholders, and employees,” he says. Yet he opted to settle up.
“I paid off all the secured creditors, and I’m paying off the unsecured ones now. I even gave employees who left, who I may never see again, shares in the joint venture. That’s unprecedented in this country. In business and in life, you’ve got to do the right thing.”
Lord Bilimoria will be talking about his journey at the next Business Connections event, Bangalore to Britain — The Rise of a Brewing Empire. It takes place on Wednesday September 10 at the Westminster’s Emmanuel Centre. Doors open at 6.30pm, and it runs from 7pm to 9pm.
Tickets are free for members, who may bring along a guest, with annual membership £50. Join and book at standard.co.uk/businessconnections.