Karan Bilimoria and the story of Cobra Beer

Cobra_Beer_bottleAnother late night for me last Thursday night. This time to attend the Chartered Management Institute 2009 Sir Kenneth Cork lecture. It was organised by my friend Chris Seow from the University of East London who is the current chair of the City of London Branch of the CMI.

I have to admit I was reluctant to spend another evening in London and went along to support Chris. However, I am glad I made the effort as the talk by Karan Billimoria was absolutely fascinating.

Even while waiting for Lord Bilimoria to start I heard an amazing story from Darren Way the founder of Streets of Growth.

Streets of Growth is a dynamic community leadership organisation founded in 2001 and led by local people in Bromley by Bow East London. Committed community adult and young people work together to offer real solutions and practical approaches to tackling the issues that people face in their local community and so develop sustainable and healthier communities in the East End.

karan-bilimoriaAlthough I had not been following the Cobra beer story closely, I was aware (along with everyone else in the audience) that they had gone bust in May of this year and had been rescued by the giant Canadian brewery firm Molson Coors.

I was wondering if Lord Bilimoria would mention what seemed to be an unfortunate end to what had been an amazing success story up till that time. His first slide gave an indication that he would not be skirting around the painful aspects of his fascinating twenty year story to bring a new beer brand into mass consumption. The title of the slide was ‘Adapt or Die’. He immediately began to explain how quickly the
credit crunch had impacted high growth business such as his, who were dependent on external finance for expansion. As he pointed out, prior to the crash, cash had been king, but then it became an emperor.

Fortunately, he then went back to the beginning of his story, and spent an hour giving an absolutely riveting speech which concluded with the painful details of the collapse and eventual revival of the business.

As with so many entrepreneurs Lord Bilimoria went against his parents wishes with his plans to start his own business. Although his father as head of the 350,000 strong Indian Army did not want Karan to follow him into the military, he felt a career in the City of London would be a more appropriate use of his Cambridge University education. He was told ‘you should get a real job like a banker’.

But, he had developed a love for beer and recognised there was a significant gap in the market between traditional British bitter beer, and the sharp and gassy lager beers available at that time. There was nothing that was a suitable accompaniment to curry meals in Indian restaurants.

The second slide of the talk consisted of just three words, ‘Aspiration, Inspiration, Perspiration’. He reinforced my experience of dealings with entrepreneurs that the business idea is the easy part. Bringing it to production and then to the market is the hard bit, and may take many years.

Lord Bilimoria went to give many instances when his business nearly died. Often from causes which could never have been predicted. For example, a one year boycott of his product by Indian restaurants (his primary customers), after an article criticising the professionalism of the restaurant owners in a trade magazine which Karan had founded, but no longer had links to. In each of these ‘near-death’ experiences it was always flexibility and a creative approach that led to a solution.

It was good to hear his quite confidence about the new opportunities the partnership with Molson Coors would lead to. He said they were moving from a David vs Goliath situation to one where David and Goliath were working together. He had been impressed by the family culture that was still present despite the global size of the company, and how they had been true to their initial agreement despite the financial turmoil of the period when Cobra was forced into a Company Voluntary Arrangement.

He concluded by listing the Molson Coors definition of what makes a remarkable brand:
1.    A compelling story
2.    Refusing to compromise
3.    An instantly recognisable look
4.    A unique, relevant and consistent product
5.    To inspire brand champions from customers
6.    To deliver enduring profits

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