Last year, Indian-born entrepreneur Karan Bilimoria became the first Parsi in the House of Lords. This February, he authored Bottled For Business: The less gassy guide to entrepreneurship, which gives business tips alongside biographical snippets by journalist Steve Coomber.
Journey back to 1989, when a 27–year-old accountant, £20,000 in debt, set out on a quest for “a less gassy, smoother, alternative lager” to replace the heavy British ale or fizzy beer that typically accompanied chicken tikka in British curry houses. The Cobra Beer brand that he invented to sell to Indian restaurants in London, the first consignments of which he ferried in a bashed-up Citroen named Albert, is now present in 45 countries and grosses about £100 million in sales.
Much like his own persona and the product that he has created, polo, the sport that Bilimoria plays with such passion, is also part–British, part– Indian. He was barely two, recollects Bilimoria, an age when other toddlers were perfecting their first steps, when his father, an army officer, seated him on horseback, “just to get me comfortable.” The young Bilimoria learnt very early the mantra for success that would guide him later: “To be different, better, changing the marketplace forever.”
At boarding school in Ooty, he swam and played tennis and soccer. The long summer holidays were spent riding with skilled Indian Army and police officers in the deserts of Rajasthan, where his father was posted. At 17, on a visit to Delhi where his father was stationed, he met Billy and Pickles Sodhi, two of India’s best polo players and long-standing family friends, and fell in love with the game.
“By now I was desperate to play polo, but my father said, ‘No, you can’t play until you ride better!’ ” Why the keenness? “It was such an exciting game. I’d watch it avidly. It was the ideal way of combining sportsmanship with riding.” At 22, he finally discovered polo-heaven, when for two years running, he spent his holidays in Dehradun, learning from the polo master at the Indian Military Academy. “I even learnt bicycle polo, with our Great Danes chasing me on the lawns,” he says.
By then, Bilimoria had also developed a taste for beer. “At the army mess, my father would ask, ‘What’s the young man drinking?’, the officers would reply, ‘Beer, Sir,’ and my father would say, ‘Ah, good.’ People in India were brought up drinking whisky, but I always drank beer,” he says. As an impecunious chartered accountant student in London, he would live off Indian curry, but found that “the combination of fizzy lager and spicy food was too much. It was obvious that here was a business opportunity: the restaurant owner could be selling me much more food and more beer,” he says.
It all began to link up in 1986, says Bilimoria, when he went to read law at Cambridge, where he also became a member of the polo team. “Ironically, our playing ground was next to a brewery, called Ruddles Brewery. So the aroma of beer hung heavily over our chukkers,” he reminisces.
Arguably the most important match that Bilimoria played was the 110th inter-varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge. Between the teams, the mix was pretty diverse—Indian, Iranian, South African, American and Zimbabwean —which meant that less than half the players on the field were English. Bilimoria scored two memorable goals in the closely-fought match, and exults, “We won! It was a fantastic feeling. My team agreed to go to India to play against the universities there, for the first-ever Cambridge University Polo team tour overseas.”
This, in 1988, proved to be a turning point. The young chartered accountant and law graduate took a short sabbatical to organize the tour. Biki Oberoi was a major sponsor, the Indian Army helped out and the Maharaja of Jaipur, who headed the Indian Polo Association, lent full support. Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, a Cambridge man himself, sent an encouraging message; Doordarshan even covered the games live.
But as ill luck would have it, Bilimoria could only captain his team from the sidelines, as he fell off his horse the evening before the first match against Delhi University. It was, he says, one of the biggest disappointments in his life.
Amir Pasrich, now managing partner at Indian Law Affiliates, was the captain of the Delhi University Team and still recollects the incident. He says, “Karan’s horse (called Pepsi, I think) wasn’t very good. But Karan, in his blazer and grey flannels, was very pucca, like his father, and had all the grace and charm of a thoroughbred. He was a good leader. I scored three goals in quick succession in the third chukker—a hat–trick. We won the match, 8-2 or 8-3, and trounced them.”
Another player for the Delhi University side was Naveen Jindal, now a member of Parliament. As head of Jindal Steel and Power, he also captains his own corporate polo team. Besides playing polo for India, Jindal is also a crack skeet shooter and represents the country. “Accidents like these are great learning experiences,” he says. “Polo builds your character and you learn to play by the rules. Yes, it’s a risky game. You collide, you fall. But it gives you courage. You feel if I’m ready to get hurt, break my neck or die for a game, then why be scared in life. You learn to do things well.”
Bilimoria got over his disappointment and quickly learnt “the art of picking oneself up”. After watching the varsity match in Kolkata, a group of polo stick manufacturers, struck by Bilimoria’s enterprising skills, entered into a contract with him to sell their sticks in England. Due to the Falklands War, Argentinian sticks were at the time in short supply, and these Indian substitutes quickly began to fulfil a market need.
Bilimoria may have lost the chance to play the game but nine months down the road, he had gained enough experience to carry through his project to make the perfect beer.
A decade later, Bilimoria had mastered the art of the bounce-back. A 1998 article in Tandoori, a promotional magazine sponsored by Cobra, described Asian waiters in curry houses as “miserable gits.” Despite a 2,000-word apology in the next issue, the combination of a boycott of Cobra by restaurateurs and the stance of a hard-nosed bank that had loaned Bilimoria money, brought the business to the brink of collapse.
As Abhay Singh, ace polo player, explains, “While you can’t predict life’s variables—and there are so many in this game of speed, excitement and potential danger—you can count on team support.”
Jindal corroborates: “No polo player is ever a solo player.” Bilimoria and his team spent the next two years going to every restaurant owner to rebuild Cobra’s customer base. Old-fashioned values of team spirit, gamesmanship and creating trust through a handshake triumphed.
Lord Bilimoria now uses his networking skills to foster Indo-British business ties at the national level. While he continues to play polo—and sponsor Cambridge varsity matches—Cobra Beer has gone on to grow at a compound annual rate of 40%, and is targeting a public listing in 2009.
Name: Lord Karan Faridoon Bilimoria
Qualification: Bachelor of Commerce, Osmania University, Hyderabad, MA Law (Tripos Parts I and II), Sussex College, Cambridge University
Title: Founder and chief executive — Cobra Beer
Home: UK and India
Pursuits: Polo, tennis, sailing
Claim to fame: Founded Cobra Beer, now one of the fastest–growing brands in the UK. Recently appointed Life Peer and co-chairs the Indo-British Partnership, promoting trade and industry between the UK and India.
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