Known today as a worldwide name and highly awarded brand , Cobra Beer, was a idea that stemmed from a mutual opinion between two friends, Lord Bilimoria and Arjun Reddy.
Growing up in a background where leadership was a prominent status, Lord Bilimoria witnessed successful military progress through his father’s position as a General Commander in the Indian Army. Arriving to the UK at the age of 19 to study law at the University of Cambridge, proved to be a stepping stone to Lord Bilimoria’s bigger success. It was here that the concept of Cobra Beer was born, in Fulham 1989.
Searching for a suitable beer to compliment an Indian curry was the frustration the two students faced. It was the thought that the Britain needed a smoother, less gassy lager, which in turn would appeal to both ale and lager drinkers…
Today, Cobra Beer has become a multinational name and competes with beer brands that have been around for centuries. It has been recognised for the International High Quality Trophy award for premium beer and has gone to be further awarded the prestigious Prize of the Jury award, following the lagers rigorous process which saw nearly 3000 products being tested. Indicating just a small increment of the mammoths of success Cobra Beer has gone onto achieve.
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
I would tell my younger self to appreciate how creative business can be. I made the mistake of thinking my lack of artistic or musical skills, for example, meant I didn’t have any creative strengths. I wish I had ignored those who told me that I was not creative. Now I know that it takes a huge amount of creativity to start a business from scratch – particularly if you are going to tackle the giants in the brewing industry, which I did with Cobra Beer.
Another vital piece of advice I would give my younger self and others is to make the best of your education. I am a great believer in lifelong learning, as a graduate of three business schools, including Harvard Business School, in the last fifteen years. To this day, I still attend regular business classes at Harvard Business School, which I value for the quality of the teaching and for the regular opportunity to see old friends, year after year.
Being able to turn a complaint into an opportunity was key for your success. Can you comment on how to maintain a mindset which allowed you to see what everyone else saw, but think what nobody else thought?
To be an entrepreneur, you have got to have guts. Perseverance and tenacity and a belief that we could really achieve what we set out to achieve – to brew the finest ever Indian beer and turn it into a global beer brand – made Cobra Beer what it is today. It may not quite be global but it is well on its way there – it is now sold in over 40 countries – and it is a household name that sits alongside brands that have been around for over a hundred years.
Entrepreneurs are always looking to innovate and do the very best that they can, against the odds. If I was starting a business today, I would not find it any easier. Arjun and I started out as two young entrepreneurs trying to sell a beer from our flat in Fulham, distributing it across West London in a Citroen 2CV. It took a lot of patience building our reputation from restaurant to restaurant, and eventually turning all the ‘noes’ into ‘yesses’.
What’s the story behind choosing the name Cobra for the brand?
Cobra Beer didn’t actually start out as ‘Cobra Beer’. Originally, we thought ‘Panther’ was a great name but our consumers thought otherwise. After conducting research into what restaurateurs thought and taking on board their feedback, we decided to change it to the more appealing ‘Cobra’.
This occurred just before we were due to ship our first batch, meaning we had to re-label every bottle before sending it off and delay that first shipment. We learned that way to always listen to the consumer and let them be the judge, however great the pressure may be.
Perseverance is vital to success; having the motivation to not give up especially when others might. You mentioned how you almost lost your business 3 times. Can you expand on this and how you were able to overcome from such challenges?
The first five years of launching Cobra were the hardest.
At the end of the 1990s Indian restaurants in the UK suffered a year-long boycott of Cobra beer following a damning article in Indian restaurant industry magazine, Tandoori. We had to think on our feet – it was adapt or die.
We ended up opening depots and increasing our sales drive to push the business forward. It was an incredibly difficult time; we were at our best and then suddenly we had to cut staff from 150 to fewer than 20.
Raising finance was one of our biggest challenges, we had to raise as much as we could from a variety of sources. This was one of the reasons for the second time I nearly lost Cobra. An agreement for new financing with one of the world’s largest drinks companies fell through, and then two weeks later the Lehman Brothers went bust. Luckily, I had a Plan B and raised the money from Indian banks.
The third time hit when we were forced to put the company up for sale and we had to go through a painful financial restructure in order to save the brand. But not once, in any of these difficult times, did Cobra Beer’s sales fall.
Alongside the loyalty of our team as well as the Indian and Bangladeshi curry houses, having a strong network of friends, family and business contacts also pulled us through the worst times. As a business, we had the right values and we stood by them with integrity, and that meant that the people we needed stood by us.
What exactly inspires you today?
I am inspired by the opportunities that the UK has to offer. I came here at the age of 19 to continue my studies as an international student and I am so fortunate to have the opportunity that Britain has given me to establish my business and represent the UK abroad, for example as Founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council.
What inspires me today is seeing others having the same opportunities and bringing over their knowledge, creativity and talent to the UK. We need to ensure that we continue to encourage this and make sure that we are opening our borders to international students, encouraging them to come here to study. I want to see more being done to embrace international students. They hugely enrich the experience of domestic students, not to mention the £25 billion that they add to the economy each year, according to Universities UK’s estimates.
You argue and believe that Brexit is a huge mistake and won’t serve Britain many benefits, but as a businessman how do you plan on preparing your brand for such possible circumstances? Does this change the future vision for Cobra?
It is a massive mistake! Brexit will cause a long term adverse effect on the British economy.
The huge decrease in the value of the pound has caused immediate damage to the UK, a net importer of goods, and the uncertainty over EU citizens rights has already led many to leave the UK in search of jobs elsewhere in Europe. It goes without saying that we will be driving ambitious talent and crucial investors away from our booming economy that we have here in the UK.
The University of Cambridge has seen an 11 per cent fall in applications from EU citizens in 2016, meaning that even our pipeline of talent is drying up and regional economies in university towns and cities up and down the UK will be worse off without the wealth – a value of £25.8 billion and 220,000 jobs in total – that international students help to support.
I feel very strongly that, not long from now, the British public will realise that Brexit has the potential to wreak havoc on the UK economy. Once the true complexity of the decision to leave Europe is finally realised, the British public will realise that they have been duped – the Brexit Emperor has no clothes.
Having extraordinary determination to achieve your vision, which was met by the right wave of opportunities has led to the success of Cobra and where it is today. What one piece of advice can you give to the younger generation, one that may help them navigate their way through entrepreneurship?
Don’t be afraid to take risks even if the odds seem stacked against you. I had a future in finance waiting for me, I was a qualified accountant with Ernst & Young about to start my journey into M&A or finance, but I decided to embrace my entrepreneurial nature and take a completely different path in starting my own business. Through another initiative I was introduced to the largest independent brewer in Bangalore, which helped us create Cobra Beer. It was the idea that truly inspired passion in me, so I decided to get in touch with the brewer – and not once have I looked back.