60 Seconds With… Lord Karan Bilimoria of Chelsea

Chair of the board

4 min read

Lord Karan Bilimoria of Chelsea is the founder and Chairman of Cobra Beer, life peer in the UK House of Lords, and Chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

What was the biggest challenge in making Cobra Beer a reality?

Any successful business starts with one big idea and the challenge is always putting that big idea into action. I started without any money, in fact with a £20,000 student debt. And I was battling against well-entrenched, well-funded competitors, with zero credibility myself.

You have to believe in yourself, have faith in your idea, and know that you will change your marketplace. In my case, I knew my beer was going to be different and better: it has the refreshment of a lager but the smoothness of an ale, creating a globally appealing taste.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The best advice came from my father, who was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Central Army Command in India, with 350, 000 people under his command. When I first started working, I asked if he had any advice and he said “You’re starting at the bottom. Whenever you’re given a task, first do it, then do that little bit extra. You must always take initiative, be innovative, be creative, and go the extra mile.”

When you’re hiring, what do you look for?

We hire for will rather than skill. My right-hand man, Samson, started as a commission-only salesperson back when we had only two salespeople. His attitude was “what’s the target, because I want to beat it” — and that’s what matters more than anything else. Today, Samson is in charge of 10,000 restaurants and hundreds of distributors, generating millions of pounds of profit.

What makes a great leader?

The best leader is someone who has a vision, can clearly articulate that vision to their people, and then can inspire and motivate their team. The key thing is your people need to want to do it because they believe in you, not because they’re being told.

The ultimate example of great leadership is in the armed services where people are willing to give their lives. I saw this first-hand growing up with my father. It’s called esprit de corps, but it applies to any organisation where people don’t just follow their leader but believe in the mission.

One of my favourite Mahatma Gandhi quotes is “your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny”. If people believe, they’ll achieve the destiny of the organisation.

What’s the role of the leader in driving the culture of an organisation?

The culture, tone, and environment are all set by the leader. Leadership styles are different, and there is no one correct way, but you must:

  1. Be authentic. If your people see your authenticity, they’ll believe in you, because they see you for who you are.
  2. Serve to lead, just like Sandhurst’s motto. It’s almost the opposite of leading from the front, you lead by being out there. Practically, be accessible, and when people come to you with a problem, they need to know you’re going to listen, and help them find a solution.
    To give you an example, our ethnic restaurant sales team have a WhatsApp group that I’m on and every day they send a message announcing new accounts openings. I make a point of congratulating each salesperson because then they know I’m watching, I’m listening, I’m caring, and I’m appreciating their efforts.

When did you first realise you were an entrepreneur?

I was 8 years old and my father was posted in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. I attended a very strict Jesuit school — I got caned once for bringing in comic books. The school was English-speaking, but one day they announced that everyone had to learn Malayalam, the local dialect. I didn’t like the idea; Malayalam used a different script and was of no use outside Kerala. I complained to my parents, but they told me to do as I was told.

So, I came up with an idea: I argued that Hindi would be much more useful to learn — after all it’s India’s national language. Within a month my father spoke to the headmaster and a Hindi teacher was hired. There was over 25 people in the class because there was so much demand for it.

The lesson I learnt was there’s no point complaining about things, you need to come up with a solution. As an entrepreneur you’ve got to come up with solutions, have the guts to execute, and the resilience to stick with it when others may give up.

You’re a great believer in lifelong learning, what motivates you?

Quite frankly I did not expect to do it. I’m lucky: I have two degrees, a diploma and I’m a qualified chartered accountant — what more? Then I went on a course at Cranfield and I realised that learning allows me to improve and grow.

One of the best aspects of the House of Lords is speaking in and listening to debates. We have the highest-quality chamber in the world when it comes to breadth and depth in every field and it’s impossible not to learn if you’re there.

I also learn in a more deliberate way — I go back to Harvard for refreshers. It takes you out of your business, you learn, you connect with other leaders from around the world, and it makes you that much more effective. People that say they’re “too busy” or “don’t need to do it” are losing out. You have to make time for it and, if you do, the rewards are tremendous.

Favourite quote?

“To aspire and achieve against all odds with integrity”, our company motto. That’s the definition of entrepreneurship — when you come up with an idea, you’ve got all the odds stacked up against you, you have little or no means, but you go out there and you make it happen. But most importantly, you do it with the right principles and values — with integrity.

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