The brewer with added bite

Karan Bilimoria returns to Cambridge to tell the story of Cobra beer
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The Independent Online

"Snakes and Ladders - Cobra Beer's defining moments" is one of the most popular business case studies dissected each year by MBA students at Cambridge University's Judge Institute of Management. This title perfectly captures the ups and downs of this remarkable business success story. Launched on a shoestring in 1989, Cobra has become the fastest-growing Indian beer brand in the UK. Now brewed in Bedford and Eastern Europe, it is exported to 30 other countries including India itself.

Karan Bilimoria is the charismatic entrepreneur whose tenacity as founder and chief executive has kept the brand on the path to international growth, achieving a £60m turnover on the way. Cobra's success has made him one of the most admired business people in the UK. His appointment as a Visiting Entrepreneur, attached to Cambridge University's Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, is proving a real boost to MBA students at the Judge. Not only do they study his company's meteoric rise in the abstract, but they can explore the twists and turns of the story face-to-face with Cobra's creator himself during his regular visits to the school.

Although he trained as an accountant, partly to please his family, Karan Bilimoria knew in his bones that he was predestined to become an entrepreneur. It was at Cambridge, where he went on to study for a law degree, that he refined his ideas for brewing an ideal beer to accompany Indian food which was smoother and less gaseous than most lagers. Six months after leaving Cambridge, he started his own brewing and distribution business, initially delivering the crates himself to London's Indian restaurateurs from the back of a battered Citroën 2CV. Nowadays, Cobra beer is stocked by almost 90 per cent of licensed Indian restaurants in the UK.

When this Indian-born son of a general was studying at Cambridge 15 years ago, the word 'entrepreneurship' wasn't even in the university vocabulary, he recalls. How things have changed.

"It may have taken Cambridge 800 years to appoint its first visiting entrepreneur," he says, "but my involvement with the Judge shows just how seriously Cambridge is tackling the subject nowadays. In this respect, Cambridge is ahead of the whole country. Not only is entrepreneurship an integral part of the MBA course, but via the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning the spirit is being spread throughout the university and beyond via such events as the entrepreneurs' summer school and weekly sessions for anyone connected with the university who may be thinking of starting their own business."

Bilimoria relates with relish how, when the Cobra case study was first discussed as part of the MBA course at the Judge, he was invited by faculty member Dr Mark de Rond to hover incognito at the back while students argued uninhibitedly about what they would have done differently at key stages in the company's development. They were finally asked to come up with a list of 10 questions they would want to put to Cobra's founder if they were to meet him. To the students' amazement, Karan Bilimoria stepped out of the shadows to bring the case study literally to life, answering the issues they had raised in person.

"An MBA course should not all be theory. By inviting entrepreneurs into our classroom in this way (often without students' prior knowledge), we are able to relate the world of ideas to the everyday realities of business - a potent cocktail," says Dr de Rond, who wrote the Cobra case study. "Cobra's story is exciting in that its sheer success defies theory. Karan's resilience, enthusiasm and ability to 'manage from the gut' has allowed him to beat the odds and carve out a lucrative market position."

The benefits from the involvement with Cambridge flow both ways. Karan Bilimoria clearly gains from the experience of putting something back into the university and the city which he declares himself to be passionate about. Above all, it is the interaction with fresh, young minds that he finds most stimulating.

"Every time I visit the Judge, it is a learning experience for me. I get very challenging questions which I enjoy. As well as analysing the past history of the company, there are always new developments in the business to share and to explore with students. This form of learning only works however, if you are absolutely open and are prepared to talk about your mistakes as well as your successes. And it doesn't finish when the lecture is over. During the informal drinks reception that follows, a huge queue of students forms to ask one-to-one questions. It is important for me to put in time there too."

Cobra also gains from having Judge MBA students working temporarily within the business itself on live assignments. "Recently a team from the MBA course looked at Cobra's potential for selling its beer in India. The students put together an in-depth, very frank assessment as to whether we would succeed in that marketplace. Having spent time with our management team here in London, they gave a masterful presentation. It was of great practical benefit to them as well as to us in terms of our forward planning."

Although a keen believer in the value of management education, Bilimoria did not opt for an MBA himself, electing to study law instead. However he points to the "life-changing experience" he gained by attending Cranfield School of Management's Business Growth and Development programme in 1998.

How well does he feel that MBA courses in general handle the subject of entrepreneurship? "One of the misconceptions of the MBA is that it is meant to train you to start your own business. The reality is that it has traditionally been a way of training better managers, not necessarily entrepreneurs. To that extent, the entrepreneurship element of most MBA courses remains optional in most cases. This always surprises me, as I believe it should be made compulsory. Once that seed has been sown, even if you initially return to your job in say banking or the law, it is never going to be too late to think about going it alone as an entrepreneur."