‘I sold beer from my car boot. Now I’m in the House of Lords’
How I Made A Million: Cobra Beer tycoon Baron Bilimoria has a refreshing tale to tell
Article By Lauren Shirreff | The Telegraph
Lord Bilimoria’s company, Cobra Beer, has turned over more than £200m in a year Credit: Jamie Lorriman
Baron Karan Bilimoria, 61, was the third-youngest person in the House of Lords when he took his seat in 2006. He was also the boss of Cobra Beer, Britain’s popular Indian beer brand.
“I was born and brought up in India, but came to the UK when I was nineteen – though I spent some time here when my father, an Indian army general, was briefly stationed in Britain,” he told Telegraph Money.
“I qualified as an accountant with what’s now Ernst and Young, then went on to study graduate law at Cambridge, as I already had a degree in commerce from an Indian university.
“Cambridge was where I came up with the idea for Cobra Beer,” he said. “I’ve always been a big beer lover, which makes me typical of a lot of entrepreneurs, in that usually your ideas come from either your love for something or your hatred of it.
“I’d eat at Indian restaurants at least twice a week, and I’d always get a beer with my meal. The lagers were always too gassy, though, and a pale ale was too bitter. I wanted a beer that had the refreshment of a lager and the coolness of a pale ale – one that could go perfectly with any food, not just a curry.”
While still a student, Lord Bilimoria began importing polo sticks from India and selling them on to Harrods and Lillywhites. “When I finished my law degree, I would have been in the ideal position to be an investment banker or an accountant, but I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he said.
“I was a recent graduate with heaps of debt to pay off, but myself and my business partner decided to take the plunge and begin designing the beer we had dreamed up. I went over to Mysore Breweries in India, which was the home of Indian beer, to start creating the product from scratch – which was not something I had experience in,” he recalled.
Lord Bilimoria came up with the idea for Cobra Beer at Cambridge University while studying for a masters in law Credit: Jason Alden
Lord Bilimoria worked with a master brewer, who had learned the art of brewing pilsner in Prague, to come up with a beer that would be a perfect match for Indian curries. “We spent forever perfecting the recipe and balancing all of the flavours – today we’d probably be the world’s best craft beer brand, but our focus was on getting into restaurants.”
Lord Bilimoria’s father, who lived in India at the time, took some time to believe in his son’s venture. “My father was commander in chief of the Central Indian Army and head of the Gurkhas in India. When I came over to brew the beer, so I’d go to visit him. He was in command of about 350,000 people at that point, and he thought in a very protective way that what we were doing was crazy and that I should get myself a real job.
“Today though we’re the biggest Indian beer brand outside of India, and the most well-known Indian consumer brand in the UK by far – so I think I can say that we’ve done okay.”
Cobra Beer now retails in 40 countries, and has turned over more than £200m in a year – but the iconic brand came from humble beginnings.
“The struggle for us was in getting it all off the ground. We were operating out of our flat in Fulham where we both lived – we slept on one floor, and the floor above it was our warehouse as well as our office. That’s where we put the beer when it came shipped over from India. We’d bottle it there, and then I’d hand-deliver it to restaurants out of the back of my car.
“When that first shipment of beer came over from Bangalore, I sent half of it up to a distributor in Newcastle to go to restaurants there. The second half was meant to go to a distributor in London, who at the time worked with two of the top Czech beer brands. But she rejected the batch because, according to her, it was a little too hazy – so we were landed with it to sell ourselves, without actually having any customers.
“But some things happen for the best. I started knocking on doors in Chelsea and that’s how we got our first restaurant sales, as well as an off-licence on Fulham Road stocking us. We made our first million in revenue within six years, thanks to the curry restauranteurs, and things started picking up much more quickly from there.”
Cobra Beer made its first million in revenue within six years Credit: Cobra Beer
In the decades since Cobra began trading in 1989, the business has faced huge challenges. One of the biggest came when Lord Bilimoria’s business partner decided to leave the company.
“You have to adapt or die,” Lord Bilimoria said. “We had spent six years working together, and it was a huge adjustment to work on my own. But we did part on good terms. You have to trust each other absolutely, and I honestly would have trusted him with my life.”
Another challenge came during the 2008 financial crisis. “We went through a very difficult restructuring process then, and I made sure that I looked after my staff first – many of whom have been working for Cobra for 30 years. I’m still paying off our creditors, but I’ve very nearly got that over with.
“I’ve nearly lost my business three times, and every time the same three things have seen me through – the strength of our brand, my personal integrity, and the support of my wife,” he continued. “I met her at a house party that I almost didn’t go to, a year after I had started working on Cobra, and it was literally love at first sight. It was one of those ‘Sliding Doors’ moments, because I hadn’t planned to get married until I was in my forties. She has been by my side the whole time.
“As a British Indian, to create the most famous Indian consumer brand in the country, as a student with thousands in debt to pay off, and without fundraising a penny, has been a huge source of pride. What gives me the most satisfaction is when I hear good things about my employees from the people they’re dealing with, though – it makes me very happy whenever anyone speaks highly of them.”
What was your first job, and how much did you get paid?
When I was in the UK with my father as a child, I did the paper round every day at 5 o’clock in the morning before school. I was paid £2 a week, which I saved up to buy my first Dunlop tennis racket, which I loved.
What does a day in your life look like?
Every day is different, and much of it is filled with my work in the House of Lords, as I’m politically active and take part in a lot of debates. Every day involves some sort of work on Cobra, as well as exercise – I learned to box with the Gurkhas when I was eight and still like to keep fit.
What would your top tip be for anyone who wants to make their first million?
Life is all about attitude. I try to hire on will rather than skill. So follow your passion rather than your pension, and aspire and achieve against all odds with integrity.