As the founder of Cobra Beer, Karan Bilimoria has demonstrated his skills as a talented entrepreneur—and able networker
Karan Bilimoria is late—and not just a little bit late, either. He's properly late. It's a good hour before he finally appears, all apologies. But given his punishing daily schedule, which requires a team of six personal assistants to co-ordinate, sorry seems a bit redundant.
The full record of his current commitments takes up the bulk of a five-page CV—even the abridged version requires a very deep breath. Here goes: apart from his role as founder and CEO of Cobra Beer, Bilimoria is also UK chairman of the Indo British Partnership, a member of Gordon Brown's Asia Task Force, representative deputy lieutenant of the London Borough of Hounslow, chancellor of Thames Valley University, vice-chairman of the Asian Business Association, a non-executive director at food supplier Brake Bros, visiting entrepreneur at Cambridge University and a member of the government's National Employment Panel.
He was awarded a CBE in 2004, pops up as a university guest lecturer every once in a while and took his seat as a life-long peer in the House of Lords last summer, quite possibly in recognition of his astonishing vocational appetite. Is there any room for politics? Andrew Ward, director of corporate development at Thames Valley University, certainly thinks so. "It's remarkable," he says. "We thought we might lose him when we heard he'd been ennobled but, if anything, it's added a new dimension to our relationship. He's way beyond any other chancellor I've ever known."
Waiting for Bilimoria to arrive at least offers the opportunity for a snoop around Cobra's south-west London headquarters. The main floor seems lively enough—much of the commotion appears to be marketing related—but the real treasure trove is on the next floor up. There are gongs, awards, trophies and certificates littering every available surface—all celebrating Cobra's unlikely success in a fiercely competitive world market.
Back in 1989, he was delivering bottles of Indian-manufactured beer to UK curry houses out of the back of a battered Citroën 2CV. Now Bilimoria's brew is a regular winner at the industry's annual Monde awards, picking up 12 gold medals last year, and it's enjoyed by beer drinkers in 45 different countries.
"That's always been the goal," he says, breezing into the room in his trademark blue blazer. He may be late, but it's hard not to be swept up by his seamless shift into interview mode. "From day one," he says, "the idea was to create the finest Indian beer and make it a global brand." The beer was initially brewed in India, but "very deliberately, I wanted to make London my global headquarters, because it's so cosmopolitan. Without having to travel I could see, right here, the reaction of people all round the world to my product. I could tell it had global appeal."
What helps maintain that appeal is the illusion "that it's been around for 100 years," says Bilimoria. "Stella [Artois] was founded in the 14th century, Cobra was founded just over 14 years ago." How did he pull off that trick? "I prefer not to call it a trick, but a brand is what a brand does. It's not just the name and the packaging, or the taste, and it's not just about the marketing and promotion either—it's everything."
The comparison with Stella is instructive. That a relatively young brand can even compete with a product that is the star performer in the portfolio of the world's largest brewer, InBev, is testament to Bilimoria's entrepreneurial instinct.
"It's no small feat to come in and develop a successful brand from scratch in such a competitive marketplace," says Dominik Nosalik, lead analyst at market research company Datamonitor.
It may have been a gutsy debut, but it wasn't exactly what Bilimoria's well-heeled parents had in mind when they packed him off to a succession of universities and business schools, notably Cambridge and Cranfield Management School, to learn the basics of accounting and law. But Bilimoria's long education had at least one positive outcome: it opened the door to Ernst & Young, where he learnt the equity-conscious entrepreneur's trick of loading a fledgling company with debt, instead of giving away potentially valuable shares to sharp investors.
Simple "textbook" financing, such as using bills of exchange, overdrafts and invoice finance allowed Bilimoria to hang on to 72 per cent of the company at a time when cashflow was tight. It's a strategy that will almost certainly make him a very rich man. In his new book, Bottled for Business, which chronicles the Cobra story, Bilimoria predicts that by 2014, his beer will be a billion-dollar brand.
One of the keys to Cobra's early success among more brawny competitors was its chief executive's ability to spot a niche. Noting that UK curry houses tended to stock "harsh, gassy lagers" which bloated the drinker's stomach, he decided to develop a smoother variety that could accompany spicy Indian food, allowing the customer to eat and drink more. No other beer brand had thought of it. "The clever part was not taking the big brands head on," explains Nosalik. "Cobra went after a niche and made it its own."
But it wasn't just the nation's curry eaters that he wanted to target. Bilimoria's unflinching vision was that Cobra would appeal to a whole variety of different palates, whether the consumer preferred the stronger lager of his native India, the weaker beer of the US, the more arresting flavours of UK and European brews, or even the delicate, drier taste of Japanese rice-brewed beer. Hardly a risky strategy in today's global economy, but back in the late 1980s, when all but the most ambitious brands left the globe-spinning to Coca-Cola, it was a revelation.
In truth, Bilimoria had always operated on a global scale. One of his first business schemes was selling polo sticks, which—having learnt the first lesson of globalisation, that there are healthy margins to be found in cheaper production costs—he picked up in India for a pound each and sold on to Harrods for £15.
Although Cobra was originally brewed in India, it was sold only in the UK. Bilimoria's plan was always to wait until the supply could be guaranteed and then hit the Indian market, just as soon as it was ready. "I watched and waited for the right time," he says. "Then I noticed India's reform had shifted as if somebody had put the charger on. Growth went from five per cent straight up to eight per cent." In 2004 he struck a deal with a brewery in Rajasthan, taking Cobra back to his native India. Three years on, the brand message is starting to stick—sales in January were up 250 per cent on November.
Does an understanding of the Indian market make it easier to succeed there? "While China is export-led growth, in India it's consumption-led growth," he says. "The consuming class in India is 300 million, and adding a population the size of the Netherlands every year. Each manufacturing job creates three service sector jobs—there's still huge potential for growth."
India may be growing fast, but in a country with 83,000 dollar-millionaires, and 300 million dollar-a-day beggars, there is an urgent need to redistribute the wealth more evenly. Bilimoria's consumerist viewpoint is familiar: like most entrepreneurs he believes wealth begets wealth. But does enough of it trickle down? Bilimoria believes it does, providing the government works with business to make it happen. "If you look at the Genie Index [which measures social inequality] in the US it's pretty high, but it's the wealthiest nation in the world. India is another extreme: 300 million in the consuming class, but another 300 million in poverty. That's unacceptable. Is globalisation important in helping to reduce poverty? I believe, passionately, that it is."
That conviction is borne partly from experiences with his Indian suppliers. The Mount Shivalik brewery in Rajasthan is a case in point. "Surrounding the brewery are mustard husk fields," says Bilimoria. "After harvesting the mustard, the farmers just burn the husk to get rid of it. The brewery noticed and said, 'let's buy it from the farmers and burn it as a natural, sustainable source of energy.' So the farmers now get extra income from something they were wasting before, the factory started using a natural source of energy and soon other factories saw its potential and started [using husks for fuel] too."
Bilimoria says that being socially responsible must run right though the business to have any lasting effect. "When you talk about the triple bottom line, it is about how you look after your staff. You create an environment where people flourish. You respect them, and you treat your customers and your suppliers equally. A lot of companies worship their customers and bully their suppliers and employees—and make massive profits. Well, I'm sorry that's not my way."
The Cobra Foundation is part of Bilimoria's plan to put something back into the community. Established in March last year, the independent fundraising charity allows Bilimoria to provide grant-based support for causes such as AIDS education in India, the Prince's Trust and Whizz-Kidz, a charity providing wheelchairs to disabled children. "It's not a case of simply writing a large cheque—you have to live it on a daily basis," he says.
"Living it" is a part of Bilimoria's heritage. As a Zoroastrian Parsi, his philosophy is based on good thoughts, good words and good deeds. "Parsis are renowned for entrepreneurialism and for their charity work," says Bilimoria. "Look at Jamshedji Tata. His vision was to create a community, a city, which is still named after him. We talk about CSR now, but he practiced it 100 years ago."
Tapping into India's expanding consumer class will be expensive—partly because of the huge head-start existing brands, such as Kingfisher and Haywards, have enjoyed, and partly because attempting to expand the appeal of a product whose success has been built on its niche position can be hard work. As a counterbalance, Bilimoria has Cobra's reputation in other countries to fall back on, plus product extensions, such as his wine range, and the stronger, more upmarket brew, known as King Cobra.The continued roll out of draught Cobra in the UK's pubs and bars should add wider appeal.
Bilimoria plans to take Cobra public in 2009. Flotation would provide added expansion funds, improve the brand's global standing and, provided a suitable CEO is found, offer Bilimoria the chance to step back into the role of chairman. Although, in classic Bilimoria style, any stepping back will be purely metaphorical: "I'm looking for a CEO so I can become an executive chairman—I'll still be very hands on." You wouldn't expect any less.