60 seconds with… Lord Bilimoria

Chair of the board

3 min read

Lord Bilimoria is the Founding Chairman of Cobra Beer and the UK-India Business Council. He is the Senior Independent Director of Booker Group, the FTSE 250 wholesaler, a member of the Advisory Board of the Judge Business School and an Honorary Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University. He is an Independent Crossbench Peer, a member of the Prime Minister of India’s Global Advisory Council and was previously Deputy President of the London Chamber of Commerce and a NED at Brake Brothers.

What would you change to make UK boards more effective?

I would insist that every board in the UK have international representation amongst its board members. We live in an ever more connected world making it easier to trade internationally and it’s a source of endless frustration to me that UK companies aren’t taking greater advantage of this.

As well as introducing greater international diversity into the boardroom, I would also champion other forms of diversity. The breadth and depth of experience in the House of Lords makes for an effective check on the House of Commons – the same goes for non-executives on a corporate board. At Booker, each non-executive brings their own perspective and experience to the table and this diversity is central to the board’s effectiveness. It drives rich and rewarding boardroom conversations by challenging the executive team to see beyond the blinkers and expand their horizons.

Have boards changed much in the last few years?

Since the Higgs Report a decade ago, there has undoubtedly been a step change in attitudes – especially amongst non-executive directors. Their role is taken far more seriously and their input is valued. I particularly support the recent development of the role of the Senior Independent Director on the board – it helps instil further checks and balances.

How important do you consider information to be in the boardroom?

The executive will always be more knowledgeable about the business, so the challenge is for the non-executive to get up to speed. Giving non-executives too little information is dangerous, but there’s a limit to the volume of information a non-executive can realistically digest. Getting the right balance is key.

Along with the right scope of information, we also need the right frequency. Weekly dashboards are a helpful supplement to the more formal monthly briefing papers and keep the whole board in the loop between board meetings.

What government policy would you like to change to support British enterprise?

Top of my list would be our tax policy. We need to attract the highest calibre of talent from around the world but our top rate of taxation, combined with VAT and National Insurance is just too high – it’s stifling enterprise. I’d also develop policies that encourage investment in higher education, research, development and innovation. The US invests a multiple of what we do in each of these areas. We can’t expect to remain competitive as a nation if we don’t close this gap. Finally, I’d invest in schemes to help SMEs and start-ups get access to the funding they need. Government Loan Guarantee Schemes were essential to getting Cobra Beer off the ground.

How will the UK’s global influence change over the next decade?

Our habit of self-deprecation does us no favours. In fact, we’re at risk of losing our global influence because we’re underestimating our strengths. We shouldn’t forget that we have a strong manufacturing sector and defence industry, a higher education system that is amongst the best in the world and, despite recent challenges, a leading financial services industry too. We need to secure our prospects on the global stage by playing to our strengths, not diminishing them, or we risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

What is the smartest business decision you've made?

Deciding to found Cobra Beer and create something that people genuinely love and appreciate! After that, the smartest thing I’ve done is to build a team of people around me who are highly capable, loyal and adaptable.

What book is on your bedside table?

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder.

What is your golden rule?

I have two. The first is to always take the initiative, always be creative and always go that extra mile. It’s the same advice my father gave me when I was about to take up my first job in an accounting practice and it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. The other is to stay true to my vision and aspire to achieve against all the odds with integrity.

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