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Entrepreneurial leadership takes a lot of bottle...

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Lord Bilimoria is the man behind Cobra beer and knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship. Will Green met him during a trip to Guernsey

Lord Bilimoria. (25070009)

CHANCES are that if you’ve ever enjoyed an Indian meal, one of your party may have had a Cobra beer with it.

So, to meet the man behind Cobra beer is quite something – not least because hundreds of millions of bottles of his drink are sold every year.

Lord Bilimoria hasn’t let success go to his head. In fact, he was incredibly humble. His beer is exported to 40 countries and brewed across the world, but he seemed to question whether it was a global beer yet.

He was also open about the times that he nearly lost everything. He even apologised for talking about the success of Cobra beer while sharing his entrepreneurial story at a leadership conference organised by the Guernsey-based Leaders consultancy.

‘An entrepreneur’s journey is about guts. It’s about the guts to do it in the first place. Lots of people have ideas, but how many have the guts to give up what they’re doing or whatever opportunity they have to try and put that idea into action?

‘Equally important, entrepreneurs have the guts to stick with it when others would give up,’ said Lord Bilimoria.

He highlighted the need for having a purpose in life and knowing what that was, with a mission and vision to succeed but in the right way. ‘With the mission as a leader you’ve got to know where you want to get to, have measurable objectives. But the vision is the underlying attitude and that is the most important.’

Cobra’s vision is to inspire and achieve against all odds with integrity, said Lord Bilimoria, who came to the UK from India as a 19-year-old student.

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He had been brought up in an Army family, with his father being commander of the central army in India.

‘When I came to the UK, I qualified as an accountant with EY. I did a law degree at Cambridge and it was while I was at Cambridge that I came up with the idea for Cobra beer, which was from a dislike of the lagers that I was being presented with. I found them very fizzy and gassy, and difficult to drink. And a love of English ale, which was introduced to me by an English friend of mine, which I took an instant liking to.

‘But I couldn’t drink ale with food. I’m very happy to drink it in the pub on its own, but I found it too bitter and too heavy with food. And so that’s when I had the idea of producing my own beer from India, which would have the refreshment of a lager and the smoothness of an ale combined – and that would appeal to people from all around the world, have a globally appealing taste being a balanced, rounded product.’

He foresaw a beer to go with all food, including Indian food, and enjoyed by men and women. But Lord Bilimoria realised the enormity of the project, so started to build up experience of importing products from India with a friend from childhood. Polo sticks were the first item, apt given that he had led the first Cambridge polo tour of India, followed by other goods. They were sold into stores such as Harrods.

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There was then a ‘lucky introduction’ to the biggest independent brewery in India. From that point there was another year of development work, with the first Cobra beer sold in June 1990.

But it was not until 1996 that the brand really took off, with subsequent years of high growth – with Lord Bilimoria focused on achieving ‘critical mass’.

‘Over the course of the journey, I’ve nearly lost my business three times and the third time was during the financial crisis of 2008-2009,’ he added.

A painful restructuring followed and the formation of a joint venture with brewing giant Molson Coors.

‘Since then we’ve never looked back. I’ve always said that when dealing with crisis, I’ve noticed each of the three times were very different when I nearly lost my business. Invariably they come out of the blue and you don’t anticipate the crisis.’

The question of how to get through a crisis was the key, with a strong brand and team, plus support of your family essential elements for him.

‘And do it with the right values and with integrity. I always says it’s better to fail doing the right thing rather than succeed doing the wrong thing. With those three things, one can get through anything.’

Lord Bilimoria’s advice for entrepreneurs:

. Be committed – really believe in your idea.

. Do something better and different.

. Give people faith to trust you by your passion – and bridge the credibility gap.

. Take a long-term view and set goals.

. Have a play-to-win mindset.

Will Green

By Will Green
Business Editor

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