Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE, DL is the founder of Cobra Beer, Chairman of the Cobra Beer Partnership Limited, a Joint Venture with Molson Coors, and Chairman of Molson Coors Cobra India. In the Monde Selection, one of the most prestigious quality awards in the world for beer, the Cobra range have collectively been awarded a total of 110 Gold medals since 2001, making it one of the most awarded beers in the world. Lord Bilimoria is the Founding Chairman of the UK India Business Council, a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London, a former Chancellor of Thames Valley University (now the University of West London); he was the youngest University Chancellor in the UK when appointed. Karan was a former Senior Non-Executive Director of the Booker Group now TESCO PLC (2007-2016); he is one of the first two visiting entrepreneurs at the University of Cambridge; he is a founding member of the Prime Minister of India’s Global Advisory Council. In 2006, Karan Bilimoria was appointed the Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, making him the first ever Zoroastrian Parsi to sit in the House of Lords. In 2008 he was awarded the Pravasi Bharti Samman by the President of India. He is an honorary fellow of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge and Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Judge Business School, Cambridge University. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst & Young and graduated in law from the University of Cambridge. He is also an alumnus through executive education of the Cranfield School of Management, the London Business School and the Harvard Business School. In July 2014, he was installed as the seventh Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, making him the first Indian-born Chancellor of a Russell Group University in Great Britain, and he is the President of the UK Council for International Students Affairs (UKCISA). Since 2017 Lord Bilimoria has been a Bynum Tudor Fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Lord Bilimoria is an Honorary Group Captain in 601 Squadron Royal Air Force. In June 2020, he was appointed President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
Karan was born in Hyderabad, India on 26th November 1961 into a Zoroastrian Parsi family with a distinguished background in the armed forces and business. His father, Lt. General Faridoon Bilimoria PVSM ADC (1933-2005) was the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Central Indian Army, also having served as ADC to Indian President Rajendra Prasad, and led the 2/5 Gorkha Rifles during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. His mother, Yasmin Bilimoria nee Italia, a graduate of Birmingham University, was the daughter of Jamshed D. Italia, a Squadron Leader in the Royal Indian Air Force. His maternal great grandfather, D.D. Italia, was a Hyderabad-based businessman and politician, who also served as Member of the Upper House of the Indian Parliament (the Rajya Sabha) in the 1950s.
Karan attended seven different schools, before boarding at the Hebron School in Ooty. When he was still nineteen he graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce Honours degree from Osmania University in Hyderabad. He then moved to London on a scholarship and received a diploma in accounting from the London Metropolitan University, and thereafter qualified as a chartered accountant with what is today Ernst & Young. He then graduated in law from the University of Cambridge as a student of Sidney Sussex College. During his time at Cambridge, Karan was a member of the university’s polo team and was awarded a Half-Blue, also organising their first ever tour of India, led the Cambridge Union debating team against the Oxford Union for two years, also becoming Vice President of the Cambridge Union, before graduating in 1988. He retains close ties to Cambridge University today, both as an Honorary Fellow of Sidney Sussex College and as a member of the Vice-Chancellor’s Circle of Advisors for India.
It was during the India tour of the Cambridge Polo Team that Karan noticed that polo sticks made in India offered a point of difference to those available in the UK. He promptly embarked on his first business venture, importing polo sticks to Britain, selling them successfully and profitably to Harrod’s and Lillywhites. He also experimented with importing other products, before going on to implement an idea he had conceptualised during his time at university, which was to create a unique Indian beer. And with that, Cobra Beer was born in 1989.
Along with his friend and then partner, Arjun Reddy, Cobra Beer was established on the top two floors of a flat in Fulham, London. The idea for the beer was developed during Karan’s Cambridge days when he often dined at local Indian restaurants. He noticed that regular lager was too gassy and bloating to be enjoyed with food, while ale was to bitter to accompany a meal. He then came up with the idea to create a beer that had ‘the refreshing qualities of a lager’ combined with the ‘smoothness and drinkability’ of ale to go alongside food.
At the time Karan had a student debt of £20,000 and funds to start a new business were not easy to find. Borrowing money from various sources, including £7000 from a bank on an overdraft to start with, Cobra commenced operations. Dr Subroto Cariapa, a brewer in Bangalore, India, and the owner of Mysore Breweries, Mr Balan, liked the concept Karan had developed, and helped create Cobra. From India, it was then imported to Britain, and distributed fifteen cases at a time by Karan himself in a battered old Citroen 2CV. All the effort bore fruit as business began to grow, and soon Cobra moved beyond London restaurants, spreading out across Britain.
After Arjun Reddy left the business some years later, Karan continued to take Cobra forward himself. The company expanded at a rapid rate and suffered a major blow with the advent of the recession, in 2009. Having borrowed heavily from a hedge fund, the business suffered financial trouble, and underwent a painful restructuring. Molson Coors, one of the world’s largest brewers, then acquired a 50.01% share, and the Cobra Beer Partnership, a joint venture, was born, with Karan as Chairman, with him and his shareholders holding 49.9% of the business.
In 2004 Karan was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to business and entrepreneurship, and in 2006 he was appointed an Independent Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords and created Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. He became, thus, the first Zoroastian Parsi to sit in the House of Lords. Since 2007 Karan has been a Non-Executive Director and Senior Independent Director of the Booker Group PLC, the UK’s largest wholesale operator and a FTSE 250 company. Since 2011 he has also been Chairman of the Molson Coors Cobra India Ltd joint venture.
Some of his other positions are listed below:
- Bynum Tudor Fellow, Kellogg College, University of Oxford (2017 -2018 Academic Year)
- Founding Member of the Prime Minister of India’s Global Advisory Council (2010-)
- Founding Chairman and President of the UK India Business Council (2007-2009)
- Chairman of the University of Cambridge India Partnership Advisory Board (2009-2012)
- Chairman of the Memorial Gates Committee (2003-2009)
- Chairman of the SME (Small and Medium Size Enterprise) Board (2001-2005)
- Vice Chairman of the Asian Business Association (2003-2008)
- Deputy President of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2008-2010)
- Chancellor of the Thames Valley University (now University of West London), when he was the youngest ever University Chancellor in the UK when appointed (2005-2010)
- President of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) (2015-)
- Commissioner of the Royal Hospital Chelsea (2006-2011)
- Trustee of Saint Paul’s Cathedral Foundation (2011- )
- Trustee of the British Cardiac Research Trust (2006-)
- Member of the Vice Chancellor’s Circle of Advisors for India, University of Cambridge (2012- )
- Member of the Council of the Ditchley Foundation (2011- )
- Member of the Cranfield School of Management Advisory Board (2009- )
- Member of the UK India Round Table (2005- )
- Member of the Birmingham Business School Advisory Council (2005-)
- Member of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee: Finance Bill Sub-Committee (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017)
- Member of the National Employment Panel (2001-2007)
- Member of the Advisory Board, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge (2008- 2015 )
- Chairman of the Advisory Board, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge (2016 – )
- Member of the New Deal Task Force (1999-2001) of the Department of Education and Employment
- Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (2002- )
- Honorary Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge (2007- )
- Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (2004- )
In 2008, Karan was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the President of India. This “Overseas Indian Award” is presented to recognise exceptional achievement by members of the over 25 million strong Indian expatriate community around the world. His other awards include Entrepreneur of the Year from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an Outstanding Achievement from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. He also holds honorary doctorates from the universities of Staffordshire, Cranfield, London Metropolitan, Brunel, Heriot-Watt and West London, where he also served as Chancellor between 2005 and 2010. In February 2013, he was a delegate on Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to India, having also accompanied the previous Prime Ministerial visit by David Cameron in 2011, as well as those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
In Parliament, Karan is active in a wide range of matters including commerce, entrepreneurship, diplomacy, defence, the European Union, the Armed Forces, education, culture, minorities’ contributions, academia, and more. In his frequent speeches in the House, he has spoken of the need to reform immigration policy to allow the brightest and best to come to the United Kingdom to develop their skills and business plans. Karan has been acknowledged as an ambassador for Britain, India and the Parsi Community. In 2013, he established the Zoroastrian All-Party Parliamentary Group, which is intended to provide an official forum for parliamentarians to increase their awareness of this ancient religion.
Some of Karan’s awards include:
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Westminster (2017)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of East Anglia (2016)
- Honorary Degree, York St John University (2015)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Birmingham (2014)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Exeter (2014)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of West London (2012)
- Honorary Doctorate, Cranfield University (2009)
- Honorary Doctorate, London Metropolitan University (2008)
- Honorary Doctorate, Staffordshire University (2006)
- Honorary Doctorate, Brunel University (2005)
- Honorary Doctorate, Heriot-Watt University (2005)
- Pravasi Bharatiya Samman presented by the President of India (2008)
- Man of the Year, Drinks Business Awards (2006)
- Outstanding Achievement Award, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (2005)
- Business Person of the Year, London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2004)
- RSA Albert Medal, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (2004)
- Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young (2004)
- Entrepreneur of the Year, National Business Awards (2004)
- Entrepreneur of the Year, London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2003)
- Entrepreneur of the Year, Asian Achievers Awards (2003)
- International Indian of the Year, India Link International (2015)
In 1993 he married Lynne Heather Walker, a South African national and a philanthropist, whom he met through mutual friends. She is a Latin graduate from Rhodes University and a postgraduate in Education from Cape Town University. Together, they have four children and live in London.