When Karan Bilimoria Esq became Lord Bilimoria in 2006 at age 44, he was the baby in the House of Lords where the average age is 69. In the seven years he has been Lord, Bilimoria has presented views candidly. Three years ago, he gave a speech on enterprise, Britain’s economy and the then looming general elections. He spoke from the front bench of the Crossbenchers, and sitting across him was Lady Thatcher, the longest serving British Prime Minister in the post-World War II era. He says he imagined her nodding her head, as if in agreement.
The year 1989 became a turning point Bilimoria’s life when COBRA Beer was born. With only guts and wits as his capital, Bilimoria plunged into his venture. Once, when he found himself with a large consignment to dispose off, he put the entire lot in an old Citron jalopy, visited one Indian restaurant after another and gave two free sample bottles to every restaurant. He successfully sold the entire lot of beer. The rest is history. Excerpts from the interview:
What was England like when you first arrived there in 1981?
I was a 19-year-old student when I landed in Britain. It was a time when Margaret Thatcher loomed as a towering figure with immense influence. My tribute, however, is from a different perspective. Thatcher was somebody who has influenced my life from the day one of my arrival here.
I remember the Britain I came to, which was at that time the sick man of Europe, a country with no respect in the world economy. It had lost its empire just over three decades ago then. It was a country going down the tubes with no prospects and no promise. When I first arrived, I was told by my family and friends that I would never get to the top because I would never be allowed to succeed as a foreigner. And they were absolutely right at that time. The Britain I came to in 1981 was a country where entrepreneurship was looked down upon, with images of Del Boy and second hand car salesmen defining the word.
And how was Thatcher able to transform the Britain of 1981 into a thriving economy and an entrepreneurs’ paradise?
As a student at Cambridge, London, I saw this country being transformed, opened up and the glass ceiling being shattered. Margaret Thatcher led the way. Britain not only opened up to the world, with London opening up as a global financial centre, but also did so with the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship. Attitudes of aspiration and competitiveness thrived and a feeling that people from anywhere could get anywhere was created. And I knew, even as a student, that there was only one person who initiated this, Thatcher -- the entrepreneurs’ Prime Minister.”
How did all that specifically help the Asian community prosper?
By creating the environment she did, Thatcher enabled the immigrant Asian community excel. A community much like the Ugandan Asians, who were thrown out by a brutal dictator in the late 1970s. Immigrants were able to prosper and succeed, because of the environment of enterprise and aspiration that Thatcher initiated and championed. I always say that Asian values are summarised through hard work, the importance of family, and education. Thatcher embodied those values herself. We have heard from so many who knew her well, about how hard she worked, and of the legendary four-hour sleep every night. We know the importance she gave to education, being a highly educated person herself.”
In what way were her family values were similar to those of the Asians?
I had the privilege of knowing her husband, Denis, and learning from him in great detail about his relationship with his wife. He told me about how he conducted himself as the husband of the Prime Minister, never publicly interfering but always standing as a rock of support behind the scenes. Similarly, we have also heard of her complete love and devotion to her husband, whom she loved and respected so much. We have also seen how people such as Mark Worthington, her private secretary, were loyal to her. He served her with absolute devotion and selflessness, especially during her illness in the last few years. Also, of course, her colleagues such as Lord Michael Forsyth, looked after her so well. I have that seen that personally.
How well did you know Thatcher and what was your personal equation with her?
I was privileged to get to know her over the past decade or so, through the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where I was a Commissioner for six years and where she was a regular visitor. I also knew her when I was President of the Memorial Gates Committee on Constitution Hill, where she attended our annual ceremony. And of course I knew her in Parliament. I remember speaking in a debate on enterprise and the economy once -- I was speaking from the front bench of the Crossbenchers, and she was sitting two feet across the aisle, on the Opposition front benches. Throughout my speech I could see from the corner of my eye, she was nodding consistently in approval. It filled me with pride and I knew what I was saying was on the right track.