Cobra co-founder Lord Bilimoria discusses his different roles, how he saved history of art as an A-Level, and why he thinks Brexit won’t happen. He has been a fantastic supported of ABi Associates, most recently he was our guest speaker at our 20th year celebration event.
What roles do you have?
I’m the founder and chairman of Cobra beer, a joint venture with [US brewer] Molson Coors.
I’m also an independent crossbench peer in the House of Lords, where I have been for 11 years, and I’m still one of the youngest there at 55 — the average age is nearly 70.
I’m the chancellor of the University of Birmingham (one of my predecessors Anthony Eden did it for 28 years and was prime minister at the same time, which wouldn’t happen today).
I’m also chairman of the advisory board to Cambridge Judge Business School.
What’s your average day like?
There’s no average day! I’m often back to back after I’ve been to the gym or played tennis.
It’s usually a series of meetings: looking at management, packaging, marketing etc for Cobra, one or two speaking engagements, perhaps on entrepreneurship or foreign students — I’m president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs.
I might then go to the House of Lords if there’s a debate I’m involved in and invariably there’s a work dinner.
So how’s your work-life balance?
I count myself lucky in that I love everything I do. My wife always says: “you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
I have a really good team who always manage to pack so much into the day. I have four children, one at university, three at school so there might be a sports day or a speech to go to, too.
My wife has always made the children her priority and she helps me manage our personal affairs. I spend my holidays travelling with my family, in India, where I was born, or South Africa, where my wife is from.
What do you enjoy in your work?
I like coming up with new ideas and making them happen. With Cobra it was the beer itself. It was my idea to have a beer with the freshness of a lager but the smoothness of an ale.
It goes with every cuisine, including curry of course. The recipe is quite complex.
People talk about craft beer — it’s the ultimate craft beer. We’re also introducing a new IPA, Malabar, and a gluten-free beer.
Also in the House of Lords I like to innovate. When I made my maiden speech I was looking for other maiden speeches but couldn’t search Hansard properly.
I requested a change and eventually now all maiden speeches are marked as such in Hansard.
What don’t you like?
Bureaucracy and anything that slows you making an idea happen. Quite often large companies lack the entrepreneurial pace.
What are your proudest moments?
On the day Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007, I asked for foreign students to get two years to stay and get a job after their degree. It was implemented in 2008 and has made a huge difference.
My daughter Zara studied history of art at Wellington College. I read that [former education secretary] Michael Gove had called it a “soft” subject, trying to get it off the A-Level curriculum. I argued its case in a speech and, as a result, history of art was saved.
What are your thoughts on Brexit?
I was the first person to say Brexit will not happen. A few months down the line when the true complexity of Brexit is seen, a solution will be found.
What was your biggest break?
Meeting my wife. We met through a Cambridge alumni dinner in Kennington, which I almost didn’t go to, so my life would’ve been very different. She has stood by me through the ups and downs.
In business, it’s starting Cobra. It’s a household name created less than 100 years ago which brings happiness to people’s lives.
I was a qualified accountant with Ernst & Young and should have gone into M&A or finance but I had that flash of an idea and took a risk.
We were importing products, originally polo sticks, from India and I got introductions to the largest independent brewer in Bangalore, which helped to create our brand from a flat in Fulham in 1989.
I have nearly lost my business three times. The first time, a trade magazine for Indian restaurants that I was the publisher of said that curry houses offered bad service. It led to a boycott of Cobra beer for a year.
The second time we had agreed a deal for new finance with one of the world’s biggest drinks companies, which fell through two weeks before Lehmans went bust.
The third time was the financial crisis when we were forced to put the company up for sale at the worst possible time and had to restructure. The brand, the loyalty of our team and the Indian and Bangladeshi curry houses saved us.
Learn from your mistakes. I remember an early one. We learned from research with restaurateurs that they didn’t like our original name, Panther. We had to delay the first shipment of the beer and redesign the logo.
As an entrepreneur you have to come up with the idea, but don’t go forward without asking the consume.