Karan Faridoon Bilimoria’s career at Ernst & Young (E&Y) lacked fizz. Others may have discussed their options with friends and colleagues over a bottle of beer. Bilimoria began making the beer instead.
“As a youngster, I had hardly planned a career as a businessman,” says he. “Rather, I saw myself as a professional working in either England or India. Over the years, my plans underwent a complete transformation. This, I guess, is quite normal and happens to most people. It was no different in my case.
“My schooldays were spent at the picturesque Hebron School in Ooty from where I passed out in 1978. Almost immediately, I enrolled for a BCom at the Indian Institute of Management and Commerce, Osmania University.
“My father then sent me off to England for a diploma in accounting at the London Metropolitan University. The exposure was tremendous and it changed my world completely. More importantly, it changed the course of my career and gave me the courage to take chances. After passing out, I enrolled at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales and qualified as a CA in 1986.
“Instead of taking up a job right away, I did my law from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. I had done my training at E&Y and got my first job there. It was exciting to finally start my professional career. But it was also a learning process. You feel lost as a youngster in a big company like E&Y. But then you find your feet.
“After a while, I felt the urge to work independently. It seemed to hold a bigger challenge. So, along with my friend Ashish Reddy, I took the plunge in 1989 and formed Cobrabyte Technologies with Cobra Beer as our flagship brand.
“There were a hundred obstacles. To start with, we had no money and there seemed very little chance of our raising it, for the British economy was going through a depression. Somehow, we managed '20,000 and launched the business. Our strategy was to corner a share of the beer market first and then move on to other segments. The market was big enough to support another player. Also, our marketing strategy paid off.
“The idea was to develop a less gassy, premium lager brewed to appeal to both ale drinkers and lager drinkers and to complement food. Fourteen years later, Cobra Beer is one of the fastest-growing beer brands in the UK. We were ranked in the 1999 Sunday Times-Virgin Atlantic Fast Track 100, the list of the UK’s fastest-growing unlisted companies. The brand has a current retail turnover of '80 million and is sold in over 6,000 restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs and in leading multiplexes throughout the UK. It has been exported to 35 countries, including India.
“As early as 1996, we started manufacturing in India from a plant in Bangalore. Just as the brand was picking up in sales, labour trouble erupted. All our plans went haywire and we had to wind up in 1998. It was disheartening, for the Indian beer market was vibrant and growing by the day. But the setback made me all the more determined to make a comeback.
“Having established Cobra as a leading brand, I thought it was time to explore the wine segment. In 1999, we launched the General Bilimoria Wine brand with wines produced in France. This is now the house wine of hundreds of restaurants, including top Michelin-starred restaurants. A range of South African wines was added to the General Bilimoria portfolio in 2002, and a Spanish range has been added in 2004.
“By 2002, we had again started manufacturing from India. This gave me a lot of satisfaction. The problems were sorted out, which is a good sign.
“Even though I have a busy schedule, I am involved with several organisations in Britain and India that do a variety of charitable work. I am also involved in industry organisations and education.”
Bilimoria is also a guest lecturer at the Cranfield University School of Management, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Cambridge University Business School (The Judge Institute of Management), and the London Business School. He is a visiting entrepreneur at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, Cambridge University.
People who can, do. People who cannot, teach. Sometimes you find a person who can combine the best of both worlds.
As told to Prithvijit Mitra in Calcutta