Belfast Telegraph

Lord of lager speaks up for entrepreneurs and Britain

By Lucy Tobin

"When I came to England from India as a student three decades ago, being an entrepreneur was frowned upon – it meant being a bellboy or carpet salesman," says Lord Bilimoria, the man behind Cobra beer.

That was in the 1980s, but the son of one of India's leading Army commanders decided to shun a desk job in the City to take that entrepreneur title, launching his own lager.

It worked: despite a bumpy ride when his business nearly collapsed three times and went into administration with £71m losses five years ago, Lord Bilimoria today sells £52m-worth of Cobra a year. It is stocked in 98.6% of Britain's Indian restaurants.

Entrepreneurship, too, has had a good innings in that intervening 30 years. Lord Bilamoria says: "Britain today is a great place to be an entrepreneur – there's a huge amount of support, government schemes, start-up networks, business schools – entrepreneurship is celebrated in this country."

But as you would expect from his own background and his entrepreneurial bent, he is also a fierce critic of the Coalition's immigration cap. He says: "The Coalition Government's immigration policy is wrong. A crude cap and the target of getting it down to tens of thousands? It's mad, a very bad way of doing it.

"This country wouldn't be where it is without the contributions of ethnic and religious minorities in Britain."

Lord Bilimoria, who is now 52 and became the first Zoroastrian Parsi to join the House of Lords eight years ago, started Cobra at the kitchen table of a friend's house in Fulham.

He had £20,000-worth of student debts, and nothing but an idea. He says: "British lager was too gassy, English ale was brilliant but too heavy for Indian food." He believed there was a gap in the market for a less fizzy beer to accompany a curry.

A friend's uncle, a retired businessman, knew a company importing seafood, which happened to be a subsidiary of India's largest independent brewery. The then-20-something Bilimoria decided to bring a curry-friendly beer to Britain.

Turning that gamble into a multi-million-pound drinks business means that now he has knocks on his own door from would-be business founders wanting advice.

"I say to them, you've got to take that leap, and have that big idea, then you need the guts to stick with it because all the odds will be stacked against you and you'll have little or no means."

Lord Bilimoria's closest shave with those stacked odds was in 2009 when Cobra went into a pre-pack administration.

Ultimately he signed a joint venture deal with the US brewer Molson Coors and is paying off creditors, as "you've got to do the right thing".

Today Lord Bilimoria says he is still fully in charge at Cobra, busy speaking at the House of Lords. "If my health permits it, I don't want to retire, ever. Many of my colleagues at the Lords are in their 80s, or even 90s, they never stop and I love that."

He's not sure whether one of his four children, aged between nine and 17, will take over Cobra one day, but says he is focused on "trying to bring them up in a way where they are hungry and never take anything for granted".

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