With Cobra Beer having recently unveiled a bold new look, now’s an opportune moment for its founder, Lord Karan Bilimoria, to reflect on a 35 year entrepreneurial journey and the many life lessons learned along the way
“Having grown up in Hyderabad, I’ve always been a great lover of Indian curry. This is a passion I share with many Brits and that I carried with me when I first moved to London to work as an accountant.
It was during my time as a student, sitting in a Cambridge pub and trying to decide between an overly fizzy lager and a heavy ale, that I was struck with an idea that would change my career trajectory in a completely unexpected way: I wanted to create a beer that would pair well with the curries I had grown up with. I realised that if I succeeded at combining the smoothness of an ale with the refreshment of a lager, I might just be able to create the ideal drink to enjoy with spicy food from around the world.
The seed had been planted and in 1989 me and my close friend Arjun Reddy launched Cobra and began delivering our beer to top Indian restaurants out of the back of a battered old Citroën. At the time, we were still producing our beer in a Bangalore brewery and shipping it to Britain. As we steadily built our reputation amongst Indian restaurants and Britain’s curry houses, consumer demand increased. Eventually, supply chain issues led us to decide to move our production to Britain.
This marked a significant change in stride for Cobra. We took pride in becoming part of the esteemed British manufacturing sector, renowned globally for its excellence. Since then, our customer base has continued to grow, with our business exporting to over 40 countries around the world and Cobra becoming the number one best selling beer in Indian restaurants across the UK.
In 2009, we entered a joint venture with Molson Coors, a partnership that equipped us with the financial and creative backing we needed to grow and prosper through times of economic uncertainty. One of the potential drawbacks of rapid business growth is that it can slow companies down and stand in the way of innovation. Operating in the foods and drinks industry for several decades has taught me that only businesses that hold on to their creative spirit can succeed in a crowded market.
With consumer demands and preferences changing rapidly, being forward-thinking and innovative has always been key to Cobra’s success. For example, from our recent research, we know that Brits are becoming increasingly adventurous when it comes to trying spicy food. We have also found that over half of 18 to 34 year olds add spice to most of their meals, compared to only 16 percent of over 55 year olds, showing that the country’s palate is changing, according to research conducted by Opinium on behalf of Cobra.
This has prompted us to adapt our strategy in turn. Recently, we rolled out a contemporary graffiti style packaging across supermarkets and restaurants that speaks to a generation of urban foodies who are eager to try new cuisines and seeking out premium brands that offer high-quality products.
The second lesson being an entrepreneur has taught me is the value of building creative teams who are able to work flexibly and adjust to emerging technologies. Artificial Intelligence is already transforming the way we work in the food and drinks industry but demand for highly skilled workers will remain high. Despite the fact that parts of the beer brewing process can be automated, to name only one impact of emerging technologies, demand for highly skilled workers will remain high.
In my opinion, employees who quickly adjust to changing circumstances and learn how to work alongside AI will be invaluable to businesses, and it is this kind of flexibility that we need as an industry and a country more broadly to remain competitive. While upskilling the UK workforce to prepare it for an AI-driven future is becoming ever more important, I am also a strong advocate of opening the UK up to talent from around the world and strengthening trade relationships with other economies. Cobra’s success story wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for our early beer imports from India and our ability to export our product to consumers around the world. Let alone if I hadn’t had the opportunity to move to the UK and become a student here.
I have learnt not to underestimate the power of having a strong vision, and never losing sight of it. Ever since the idea for Cobra Beer first crossed my mind as a student, I have kept my mission to produce high quality beer to be enjoyed alongside spicy food front of mind. Every entrepreneur will face challenges over the course of their journey, be it a financial crisis, cash flow troubles or even a global pandemic. It takes unwavering focus and determination to carry businesses through these challenges.
Since our launch in the late 80s, Cobra has become a household brand whose sales can withstand any crisis. From selling beer out of the back of a car, to becoming an internationally recognised brand, Cobra’s story shows how far consumer brands can go if they are willing to experiment with new flavours and open themselves up to change.”