As a 19-year-old in India in 1981, Karan Bilimoria was unusual in wanting to study in the UK. Many of his contemporaries were headed for the US. He remembers them asking: “What are you doing going to Britain? It ‘s a loser of a country. ” Family and friends told him that if he stayed on in the UK after qualifying as an accountant, he would never amount to anything. He was a foreigner — and Britain was riven with prejudice.
Did he amount to anything? The 53-year-old Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea — chancellor of the University of Birmingham, honorary fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and founder of Cobra Beer, which supplies 97 per cent of the UK ‘s licensed Indian restaurants — thinks he probably did.
His friends were not wrong about the UK of the early 1980s. “The Britain I came to was the sick man of Europe. It was a country that had no respect in the world economy, ” he says. And while he did not personally experience the prejudice he had been warned about, when he trained as an accountant at what is now EY, there was only one Indian partner. “And they said it was because he had an English wife, ” he says.
But in the years after he arrived as he was making his way from accountancy to a law degree at Cambridge university, the UK changed. The old barriers were swept away, and not just for Indian immigrants. “If you hadn ‘t gone to the right school and the right university, many career paths were limited, ” he says. “I saw that all change in front of my eyes, and I put that down to Margaret Thatcher. I saw her transform this country into a country that economically was going places. ”
For many years, he was a member of the Conservative party. At one time, he even thought of attempting to become a Conservative MP. But he resigned his membership some years ago. He sits in the House of Lords as an independent cross-bencher. He is a critic of the Conservatives ‘ policies on immigration and foreign students and is particularly fierce about Theresa May, the home secretary.
We are sitting in the meeting room of Cobra ‘s offices overlooking an autumn sun-dappled square in central London. Lord Bilimoria is in a smart dark suit, a paisley handkerchief peeking out of his jacket pocket, but the young staff bustling around are casually dressed. The place looks more like an advertising agency than a beer company headquarters.
What are they all doing? There is a telephone sales team selling beer to Indian restaurants. When the area managers meet up, they do it here. “We have the most authoritative database of all the Indian restaurants . . . which restaurants are opening and closing. So this is where all that happens. ”
The company owes its start to something Lord Bilimoria did not like when he arrived in the UK: gassy beer. He started brewing Cobra as a more palatable option in India. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first bottle being imported into the UK.
He may have been a nervous immigrant to the UK, but his Zoroastrian Parsi family back home, while not wealthy, were distinguished military officers. His grandfather was one of the first Indians at Sandhurst. His father was a general. A cousin was chief of the Indian navy.
Where did the interest in beer come from? There were some family precedents: his maternal great-grandfather ran a liquor business near Hyderabad.
He relaxes as he tells the story. His accent is posh English, with the occasional Indian inflection. He swings a foot up to cross his legs, a flash of bright red sock matching his cuff links. It is easy to see his story as one of untrammelled success, but Cobra came close to collapsing three times.
The first was in 1998 when Tandoori Magazine, a trade title in which he had a 45 per cent stake, criticised service in Indian restaurants. Lord Bilimoria had no hand in the article, but the restaurants decided to boycott Cobra. It took a year to persuade them to buy his beer again. He had to cut staff numbers from 120 to 17. “We had to make awful, tough decisions just to survive. ”
Ten years later, and growing fast, Cobra needed investment and agreed to Diageo, the drinks conglomerate, taking a substantial minority stake with a full sale five years later. The due diligence was done and Lord Bilimoria went on holiday, expecting to come back and sign the deal. While he was away, he got a call. “They said, ‘The deal ‘s off, we ‘ve got cold feet and we don ‘t want to go ahead ‘. ”
Luckily, he had a Plan B, a bank loan. Days after the money arrived, Lehman Brothers went bust. His bank told him it would not have lent him the money if he had asked for it after that. “It was that close. ”
As the financial crisis bit, a hedge fund investor in Cobra insisted he put the company up for sale. This was near-collapse number three. Lord Bilimoria calls it “the most painful process at the worst possible time “. Instead, Molson Coors, the North American beer company, which brews in the UK at Burton-on-Trent, agreed to a joint venture, which has given Cobra stability and, he says, profitability.
He devotes much of his energy to supporting foreign students. He finds it an infuriating task. Higher education is one of Britain ‘s great export industries — “except we don ‘t send goods out there; we bring students into the country ” — and the Conservative government is making it harder for them.
He has just heard that six Indian students with places at Cranfield School of Management, where he also studied, have had their UK visa applications refused. “How ridiculous is that? ” Students who come to the UK establish life-long links with the country, becoming its champions and supporters, he says.
He blames Ms May for her hostility both to foreign students and to valuable, legal immigrants. “She is on a rampage. I have said this and I will say it time and again: she is economically illiterate when it comes to immigration. ”
Ms May, he says, tried to end foreign graduates ‘ already limited ability to stay on to work. “She goes and makes a statement before the [2015 UK] elections: I want every foreign student to leave the day they graduate. [Chancellor] George Osborne had to step in and say, we will not have that in the manifesto, we ‘re not going to do that. But this is how rabid she is. ”
He is calmer about the House of Lords. It should be smaller, but it should not be elected, he says. “The more I have studied it the more I realised how lucky we are to have this institution. You ‘ve got world-class people there, world leaders in their fields and you ‘ve got that amazing input that scrutinises legislation, challenges government, debates.
“In an elected house you ‘d never get those people, they wouldn ‘t stand for election. You ‘d get people who were rejects from the House of Commons. ”