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Fortune favours the brave: Be confident in British heritage, says Cobra Beer’s Karan Bilimoria

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In 2013, a Russian official referred to the UK as “a small island to which no-one pays any attention”. Prime minister David Cameron may have conceded that the UK was indeed a small group of islands, but he also challenged anyone to name a country with a prouder history, with a bigger heart and with greater resilience. 

This was echoed at Real Business’ latest conference, Value Creation, when Cobra Beer‘s Bilimoria claimed that despite comprising one per cent of the world’s population and contributing four per cent of the globe’s GDP, this “nation of shopkeepers” – coined by Napoleon – is the fifth largest economy in the world.

Indeed, the British economy in December 2014 was estimated to be worth £1,818bn – £1bn bigger than that of France. This, Bilimoria stressed, was likely to be attributed to the nation’s growing number of entrepreneurs, who are facing a complex and fast-changing landscape.

“Fortune favours the brave,” Bilimoria said – a motto that belonged to the Duke of Wellington’s Yorkshire Regiment – as he explained that consumer values are shifting and businesses need to work hard to win trust and build community support. Faced with these challenges, there is a compelling need for innovation. This can only really be done with a heavy dose of bravery. After all, innovation and disruption often come hand-in-hand with risk.

It is this characteristic, Bilimoria said, that truly gets a business off the ground. The entrepreneur world is not for the timid, wit entrepreneurs often needing to take a leap of faith – something which takes guts. Guts is leaving Harvard, like Bill gates and Mark Zuckerberg did, or quitting a lucrative job on Wall Street much like Jeff Bezos. Then there’s Tony Hsieh, who sold everything he owned in order to raise finance in order to create Zappos.

The key behind all these examples is that they stood up and did what they thought was right. 

Britain has no lack of entrepreneurs – on 23 June 2015, the government’s StartUp Britain campaign noted that 581,000 new companies were created in 2014, with 2015 set to be another record-breaking year.

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Back in the 1980s, however, the UK posed a very different picture, Bilimoria said as he described the transformation that the nation had undergone. Arriving in Britain from India in the 1980s, he reiterated how he had been told that he would never rise to the top – which had at the time been described as the “sick man” of Europe, with its glass ceilings galore.

This all changed due to leadership, he said. Take, for example, Margaret Thatcher, who was credited with “saving” Britain. 

“On a personal level, my own history as a citizen of this country is very much entwined with the achievements of Thatcher’s premiership, and she is someone who has profoundly influenced my life from the day I landed in the UK in the middle of her first term in office,” Bilimoria had written in a Telegraph article.

He further explained, in his Value Creations speech, that after departing from India, his family had told him he would never be allowed to get to the top as a foreigner. Thatcher changed that, Bilimoria claimed, as she created opportunities that allowed him, “as an immigrant and as an entrepreneur”, to succeed and be where he is today.

Britain opened up not only to the world, but did so with the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship being unleashed in the country. It became a country where an attitude of aspiration, an attitude of competitiveness, an attitude of people from anywhere being able to get anywhere, was created.

Leadership, he stressed, with a combination of the above qualities, was what made Britain what it was today, and it something that should be relied upon going forward. He told the crowd of when he meet archbishop Desmond Tutu and posed the question of what made Nelson Mandela such a great leader. The response he gained, was that Mandela had been magnanimous. He had relied on integrity – something which Bilimoria suggested no business or leader should do without.

“I am the master of my fate,” Mandela had said, “I am the captain of my soul.” Essentially, he had believed that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The guts, the confidence and the bravery of Britain’s entrepreneurs to start a company, shake-up a market, dominate the industry in a different country, or take on the exporting frontier – would continue to shape and redefine the country.

But Britain and its startup culture alike, Bilimoria claimed, is being taken for granted as well as being undervalued. As was highlighted, despite the many barriers that still exist, Britain has become a country of which entrepreneurs can be proud of and believe in.

Take, for example, George Osborne’s words in his 2011 Budget: “I want Britain to be the place international businesses go to, not the place they leave. Let it be heard clearly around the world – from Shanghai to Seattle, and from Stuttgart to Sao Paolo: Britain is open for Business.”

That was four years ago, but there’s logic to his words. The hallmark “Made in Britain” has been an assurance of excellence. Shorthand for tradition, heritage, integrity and above all quality. However, it is a label that is woefully under-utilised. 

There are many ways for businesses to boost this reputation, Bilimoria suggested. Businesses needed to offer quality products and great prices. Having an iconic look and the profits to go alongside it certainly wouldn’t hurt. However, his key nuggets of advice lay in the fact that businesses need to think of the people – customers and staff alike – and in so doing create a cult-like following of brand champions, exude great passion, and more importantly, stick by their principles and never compromise.

We need to be both proud and loud.

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