Q&A with Lord Bilimoria - founder of Cobra Beer

Sarah Atkinson
Stakeholder Engagement Manager | University of the West of England
1st February 2017
Member roleInitiative member
UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer, before he gave his address:

1. What is the one characteristic every leader should have?

I’m a great believer in the concept of service leadership. The motto of Sandhurst - the military academy - is ‘serve to lead’. The motto of the Indian military academy, where Indian officers are trained, is ‘Honour, safety and welfare. Your country comes first and your own comfort comes last.’

If a leader can follow this service leadership then people will follow the leader.

2. What inspires you?

I do feel that being in business, being an entrepreneur is one of the luckiest things you can do. It's endless opportunity and blue sky, and you’re in control of you own destiny. You have to be innovative and creative, and I find that extremely exciting - the whole idea of coming up with a product like Cobra Beer that didn’t exist before, against all the odds and making it happen, building a team, partnering with everyone that works with you. It’s just brilliant.

Being an entrepreneur is a journey, its fun, it’s challenging, and its constant restless innovation and creativity. It’s so wonderful and exciting: the ability to change things and really make a difference in peoples lives.

In my case I’m very lucky because I produce a product that people genuinely love and enjoy.

3. What do you do to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?

I think that a good leader, yes, needs to inspire and quite often needs to lead from the front, but a good leader always listens. When you listen you learn.

A leader also needs to continually self improve. In my case, 8 years after I started a business I discovered the concept of life long learning. I attended Cranfield School of Management, I attended London Business School and then I went to Harvard Business School and did a 9 year programme and became an alumnus there.

To this day I’ve been going back to Harvard every year for a week as a refresher to continue to learn. Learning never stops all through your career as a leader.

4. What was the pivotal moment when you decided to pursue this career path?

When you look back on one’s life or career there are many situations where there are forks in the road and you can go one way or another way, and your whole destiny changes.

In my case, there was a time when I was leaving school and when I was thinking of joining the army like my father and grandfather, and I was very tempted to do that having been brought up as a child in the army environment but I decided to go down the business route.

When I went down the business route I qualified as a chartered accountant with Ernst and Young; I did a law degree at Cambridge University. I could’ve practiced as an accountant, I could’ve become a lawyer or I could’ve gone into investment banking, but I decided to become an entrepreneur.

It’s those decisions you make at those junctures in your journey that can change your life forever. Looking back on it I’m so glad that I came up with the idea for Cobra Beer when I was a student at Cambridge. And that I decided after I finished my studies to put that idea into action and embark upon the entrepreneurial journey.

Its always difficult making these decisions - the timing of when you become an entrepreneur. I believe the younger the better.

I was 26 years old, I had no responsibilities: no family, mortgages, or children or any responsibilities whatsoever. So I could’ve actually lost everything in a sense, but the most important thing is I had my education to fall back on. I had the benefit of being a law graduate and a qualified accountant.

These came in very handy in every aspect of my business.

When I started my business there was only two of us, my business partner and I, and we had to do everything ourselves: keep the books, do the marketing, the sales, raise finance, everything.

That experience was invaluable.

I have a joint venture with Molson Coors - one of the largest brewers in the world (a $20bn company). And yet every part of the business I ever go to at Molson Coors, whether its on the floor of the brewery or whether its with the salesforce, I’ve been involved in that part of the business myself.

I’ve done it all myself and that is such an advantage to have.

5. What characteristics would you look for in a graduate employee?

The most important aspect is attitude. Attitude counts more than anything else. We hire for will rather than skill.

Ideally both, of course, but it’s the will that matters more than anything.

Some (recruitment) agencies express this in terms of potential. Is this person curious? Are they determined? Are they going to go the extra mile? Those are the sort of people who are the best.

I’ve had people like that who have been with me (in the most extreme cases) for over two decades. Without them I wouldn’t be here talking to you because they’ve stood by me through all the ups and downs of building a business.

When you can get attitude and loyalty combined and amazing performance that’s unbeatable.

6. What advice do you wish you had given yourself as you were leaving university?

With hindsight you can always say  ‘I wish I’d done that’ or ‘I could’ve done…’ or ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ - its best not to regret.

If you look back at the position I was in when I started Cobra Beer I had £20k student debt to pay off, no experience in the beer industry, I had never sold a bottle of beer in my life. Yet I wanted to make the finest ever Indian beer and make it a global beer brand.

That was my mission then and it’s still my mission today.

It takes guts. There’s no shortcut to having the guts to do it. A lot of people have ideas but how many of them actually go out and try to make them happen?

Successful entrepreneurs have the guts to do it in the first place, but they also have the guts to stick with it when others would give up. It’s never going to be easy, things often take longer than you think, but if you’re determined you will make it.

The best definition of luck is when determination meets opportunity. If you’re not determined you will not even see the opportunity. If you’re determined you might just see it.

7. What role do you think universities can play in identifying the skills that are required for the future workforce?

I’m very privileged to be the Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, the Chair of the advisory board of Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge and the president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, which represents 450,000 international students (including 180,000 from the EU).

I think our British universities are the best in the world along with the USA. Anyone studying at our universities is getting the best of the best, world class education and it is such a strong foundation for life.

In fact it doesn’t matter what you’re studying at university as long as it’s a subject you genuinely enjoy. I’m a greater believer in follow your passion not your pension.

8. Here at UWE Bristol we run a pioneering entrepreneurship course where the students start their own businesses and don’t have normal lecture style teaching. What advice would you give to budding student entrepreneurs starting out in their new ventures?

Today, entrepreneurship is at the heart of just about every British university. Entrepreneurial societies at many universities are the biggest societies.

We’ve now woken up as a country to entrepreneurship. When I came to this country in the early 1980s, entrepreneurship was looked down upon, it was Del Boy, second-hand car salesmen, today London is one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the world, Britain is one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world.

I would encourage students to engage with entrepreneurship within the university environment, to get exposed to entrepreneurship.

Come and listen to entrepreneurs tell their stories, share their successes, their mistakes and their learnings (sic) then be inspired to be entrepreneurs themselves.

Even if they’re not entrepreneurs themselves they will then work with an entrepreneurial attitude in whatever they’re doing in life.

There’s many opportunities at universities now (including UWE) to start your own business.

Education is not just learning the theory, but actually getting the opportunity to put it into practice (with all the support around you) to help you do that.

The only caveat is: those who go down that journey make sure you finish your studies!

There are the Bill Gates’s who dropped out of Harvard and the Michael Dells who dropped out of Texas, but finish your studies, and then carry on with your idea because then you have your education behind you.

You will be proud of it and it will always come in use, and it is there to fall back on.

9. You have been particularly outspoken on the future of international students at Universities. Can you tell us a little about your view on this and how it will affect the HE sector in the future?

I’m the 3rd generation in my family to be educated in the UK form India. Both my grandfathers, my mother, my mother’s brother, me and now my son is at a British university. With international students you build generation long links with countries that you come from. They enrich the experience of domestic students, who learn about different cultures and often go to visit their friends from other countries and broaden their horizons.

Then there’s the money.

International students bring in (directly or indirectly) £14bn into the UK economy - its one of our biggest export earners.

Thirty percent of academics are from abroad, up to twenty percent of which are from the EU. In terms of whether its money, enrichment, broadening horizons, building bridges, international students are one of the strongest elements of soft power for Britain.

At anyone time there are 30 world leaders educated at British universities. It’s something that our universities are all the better for.

We have the best universities in the UK along with the USA. We wouldn’t be without the international students and international academics that make our universities so great.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. The full schedule for spring 2017 is now available. If you have any queries please contact events@uwe.ac.uk. Discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures. View content from Lord Bilimoria's lecture here.
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