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The SMART Interview #23 Lord Bilimoria

  • 13 May 2015

Lord Bilimoria founded Cobra beer from his Fulham flat, selling it from the boot of his car to local Indian restaurateurs. 25 years later it is a global brand, sold in 98% of the UK's Indian restaurants. So, what were the secrets to his entrepreneurial success?

At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Lord Karan Bilimoria 

Lord Bilimoria

You began your business career by importing polo sticks. Are people born entrepreneurial or is it something they can learn? 

Anybody has the potential to be an entrepreneur but you need the ability to be creative. Entrepreneurship is coming up with an idea and making it happen – invariably against all the odds, with little or no means and doing it with integrity. On that journey you’ve got to be constantly innovative and creative. Inherent creativity is there in everybody – it just needs to be unleashed.

Thinking smarter and being creative is something that many people struggle with. Any tips for people who want to unleash their creativity but don’t know where to start? 

First, accept that you have the ability to be creative even though you may not realise it. Second, try to come up with ideas – if you can get into this mind-set you’ll be constantly thinking, looking and spotting ideas and opportunities.

And always try to do things differently and better. The extreme example is Cobra: why come up with a new beer brand when there were thousands of beers already available? It was a very competitive, entrenched industry with big players going back over centuries.But we showed we could still come up with a product that was different and better and that changed the market place. 

Where did the idea for Cobra beer come from? 

There was no Eureka moment. It evolved after thinking that the beer served in UK Indian restaurants was too gassy. I wanted to produce a beer that would give the refreshment of lager and the smoothness of ale.

What’s been the secret to your success?

There’s no short cut. You need to work hard. When I launched Cobra, I had this battered Citroen 2CV. It cost £295, needed push starting every day and you could see the road through a hole in the floor! But I used it to go door-to-door round Indian restaurants selling beer, whether it was raining or snowing. Luck comes into play too but my favourite definition of luck is ‘determination meets opportunity’. If you want to succeed then you’ll see the opportunity that other people miss.

How important is travel to you? 

Very important. I go to India about seven or eight times a year – all my family are based there and I wear lots of India related hats, I was a member of the PM’s global advisory council and I work very closely to promote UK/India related business. I feel equally at home in Britain and India – I love both countries. I also go to the United States regularly – I’ve been going to Harvard Business School for the last 13 years. I completed their leadership programme and I go back every year for a refresher.  

When you travel, what do you always take with you? 

I travel with my iPad and iPhone – and a spare iPhone for the country I’m travelling to. If it’s a daytime flight then I’ll also make sure I have a pen and a pad of paper as day long haul flights are some of the best times to do some reflecting and planning, just clear sky thinking – literally. 

Is there still a need for a wider variety of beers in Indian restaurants and does Cobra have any plans to introduce them? 

There is always the opportunity to innovate and give customers alternatives. We developed King Cobra (the world’s first double fermented lager with an ale yeast) and we produce a Cobra non-alcoholic beer. We’re working on another innovation but the original Cobra will always be the bedrock. 

(Question provided by Sophie Atherton, beer expert and blogger at A FemAle View

How has your experience in the beer industry helped you make the case for the British food and drink industry in the House of Lords? 

Cobra is a British manufactured product and I’m proud of that, as the food and drink industry is great example of Britain’s capabilities in manufacturing excellence. I speak often about these world-class capabilities but we do need to prioritise business and industry. Manufacturing has declined to 10 per cent because past governments have made the mistake of not prioritising having a balanced economy. We should have targets to take manufacturing up to 20 or 25 per cent. 

(Question provided by Brigid Simmons, CEO British Beer and Pub Association

Find out more about Lord Bilimoria and the work of the Cobra Foundation: 



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