Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE, entrepreneur, philanthropist and founder of Cobra beer did not mince his words as guest speaker when Milton Keynes Business Leaders Partnership met for its first quarterly dinner of 2018.
Lord Bilimoria, a cross bench Peer in the House of Lords, was born in India the son of a senior officer in the Indian Army and attended a Christian school in India before going to Cambridge University. But, he told Business Leaders members and guests: “I preferred comic books to history books.”
While studying law and playing polo for the university he saw an opportunity to import Indian-made polo sticks. In 1989 he thought that lager sold in UK Indian restaurants was too gassy. He found a Bangalore brewery to make a beer that had the taste of an ale without the gas of a lager and distributed it around London in his car. By 2007 Cobra beer was being sold around the world and in 2009 Molson Coors took a controlling stake for £13 million with Lord Bilimoria as chairman.
In honour of Lord Bilimoria bottles of Cobra beer graced each dinner table.
He spoke about his pride at being made a Life Peer in 2006. “No house of a parliament in the world has the depth and breadth of expertise that is there. During a debate on a seemingly obscure subject like air safety at Gibraltar Airport, he said members rose to speak from their experience as passengers flying there, as pilots landing planes there and even as a former Governor of the overseas territory. “I am sad at the bad impression people have of it,” Lord Bilimoria said.
He said the UK university sector is the jewel in the country’s crown. “But a university education is not valued enough,” and, in the light of the current challenges the Milton Keynes-based OU faces Lord Bilimoria said: “It saddens me to see what is happening to The Open University. It is one of the best universities in the world.”
On Brexit he said that in his view it would be ‘overwhelmingly better’ to remain. On every argument including loss of sovereignty, migration and trade, leaving was not the answer, he said. “Our laws are predominately made by us, unemployment is the lowest in decades and what would we do without the EU workers’ contribution to NHS and our universities? And I can already sell my beer in pints and litres.” He said that despite being in the EU for 44 years the UK remained the best in the world in many fields. “We can have the best of both worlds!” he said, “Brexit is the worst thing ever to happen to this country!”
A question and answer session followed with Lord Bilimoria being asked by Sir Anthony Seldon, the historian and Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University, what could bring a divided country together? “It was always going to be divisive but I never expected the division we have now,” he said. To the question ‘Could the Referendum decision be overturned?’ he said he receives more and more emails from people saying ‘please stop this’. “People have to have a say on any deal. That is respecting democracy,” he said.
Nicholas Mann, a member of MK Business Leaders’ board, proposed a vote of thanks to their speaker who had earlier spoken of being influenced by Clayton Christenson the celebrated American scholar and who he described as a ‘rock star lecturer’. “Lord Bilimoria, you are a rock star Lord!” he said.
Dr Philip Smith MBE, chair MK Business Leaders Partnership, said: “Karan Bilimoria told us about his fascinating life and important contribution to the country and business - including of course his founding of Cobra beer. He also gave us his typically passionate view of Brexit, a subject which continues to divide the country.”