Refined and powerful just like the beer he manufactures,
London-based Karan Bilimoria is the first Parsi to be recently awarded
a peerage to British Parliament's upper house, The House of Lords,
as a 'cross bencher' (without affiliation to any party). Verve
special correspondent, Nisha Paul has a free wheeling chat with the
business baron and his charming South African wife, Heather Bilimoria
at his office in Fieldon House, in Little College Street, adjacent
to the House of Lords, on a rainy London morning
Bilimoria's multimillion-pound business, Cobra Beer is a household name
today and he has written an intriguing book, Bottled for Business, The
Less Gassy Guide to Entrepreneurship, which explains the burgeoning
portfolio of his products and unearths the ups and downs of introducing
the world to his special brew. He was surprisingly running late, busy
dropping his children to school which he explained was a true privilege
given his hectic travel schedules and long hours.
Can you both tell us a little about your childhood?
Karan: My father was in the Indian army so we moved around a
lot, and I went to seven different schools. Since he used to be away
often, our base was Hyderabad. My mother's family home, Anand Bhavan,
is there; it has been in the family for more than 70 years now.
I remember being about five years old and going to school with my grandfather in a chauffeur driven car in the morning and being picked up by my ayah in a cycle rickshaw, just before lunch in the afternoon. I eventually ended up at a boarding school called Hebron, in the hill station town of Ooty (Ootacamund, now renamed Udhamangalam). It's now a very popular school and is the only British boarding school left in India (it offers the British curriculum). It's over a hundred years old. In fact, the current headmaster was in school with Tony Blair.
I later studied at Osmania University in Hyderabad, and then came to England to study at Cambridge. It was a tradition in my family to come to England. My grandfather did his military training at Sandhurst and my maternal grandfather and mother were both graduates from Birmingham University.
Heather: I was born in South Africa and went to St Michael's
school in Bloemfontein and then studied English and Latin at Rhodes
University in Grahamstown. After that I taught Latin in Cape Town before
coming over here to England.
did you two meet?
Karan: A friend who was invited to a party in south London took
me along. I still remember the date, it was May 17, 1991. Heather was
the first person I met there and from then on there was no looking back.
I never thought I would find the right girl and get married so quickly!
Heather: We had five different wedding ceremonies! First, there
was a Zoroastrian jashan in our flat, followed by a marriage ceremony
in a lovely church, and then an Indian ceremony at the High Commission
here in England. We then went to South Africa and were joined by my
relatives and Karan's family and had a Catholic ceremony on our farm,
Southlands, in Free State. And then, we finally went to India, and got
our blessings there! The honeymoon was continuous and we stopped over
in Dubai on our way back here.
How did you get into the beer and wine business?
Karan: The idea came to me when I was a student at Cambridge,
and like most business ideas, it stemmed from dissatisfaction with a
product and having a passion for doing it better and differently. I
have always loved beer and hated the lager here; I find it gassy, fizzy
and bloating and much too strong and difficult to drink with Indian
Every year I used to visit my father wherever he was posted, whether it was in Kalimpong, in a desert, or in Punjab, and on one of those trips, I decided to produce my own beer. I started with Mysore Breweries in Bangalore and made sure the beer had all the refreshing qualities of lager but it was smoother, so that it could accompany Indian cuisine and also appeal to the ale drinkers here. Today we brew Cobra Beer in the UK, Belgium, Holland, Poland and India. Wine came about as a diversification about six years ago and we produce 10 different varieties in South Africa, France and Spain and they are all named after my father, General Bilimoria.