Manjit Minhas’ story of success began with a simple idea: to sell locally made quality beer at unbeatable prices. In the middle of her engineering university degree, she and her brother Ravinder began their brewing journey – but not without first facing the juggernauts of corporate competition and regulatory headaches. With persistence and determination, they accomplished in a decade what most in their industry do not typically achieve in a generation.
Manjit is the co-founder and co-owner of the Minhas Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries. Lately, she’s become even more famous as a Dragon on the hit TV show Dragons’ Den on CBC.
She began her companies at age 19, with her business partner and brother, Ravinder. In their mid-20s, they purchased the second oldest brewery in the United States in 2006, and renamed it “Minhas Craft Brewery”. This made them the youngest brewery owners in the world, and the first successful company to enter the Canadian beer industry in many decades.
Their brewery is now the ninth largest in North America, and ninety varieties of spirits and beers are today shipped to 16 countries. To date, her companies have sold over seven billion pints of beer.
By 2016, their companies had revenues in excess of $187 million.
She has used her engineering background in producing beer using least amount of cleaning and water treatment chemicals, gas, electricity and water. The brewery’s 48 can pack for Costco contains the least amount of packaging compared to any other product in North America.
In addition to producing alcohol, Minhas now runs a media production company and a home-building firm.
How did you get yourself noticed among stiff competition?
Manjit Minhas: We came out with Mountain Crest, a 5.5% lager at a buck a beer, which is totally unheard of in this country.
We used aggressive marketing as the shtick to get noticed, and not the smooth, soft marketing. We were in your face, yelling at the rooftops, talking about beer and making it fun. My brother was in all of the ads. We believed in a high quality of product at a fair, everyday price.
That’s really why and how we started. We grew big in rural Alberta, and then to Calgary and Edmonton, and then to other provinces: Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, and a little bit of Ontario. But before we did that, we grew in the United States.
We have breweries and distilleries in Canada, US, Mexico, and Barbados. It’s continually growing.
What are the ups and downs of working with family?
Manjit Minhas: The positives are a lot. One being that between my brother and I own everything together. We are both looking out for each other. There is also this inherent trust – as siblings. We are very close. You always know somebody has your back.
Also, it’s somebody to celebrate your successes, but to sit and cry about your failures with. There are in it with you for the long term, not only at the office but when you go home, go on family vacations, the family dinner table.
Also, we have different strengths. It’s nice that we are able to divide and conquer and split some of our responsibilities and duties. I oversee our HR, finance, and marketing departments. My brother oversees our sales department, and manufacturing and government relations. We both do new product development. We always know what’s going on in each other’s worlds, but there is that trust that I know and he knows we can handle.
It comes with the downside that, when you are a private company, and it is our money we are spending – not a bank’s – taking risks is something you always have to constantly convince each other of.
We don’t always see eye to eye. That can be tough because it is harder to convince – rationally – a family member than a third person. Also, if I’m not getting along with you today, or we disagree about something fundamental, I have to see you tonight, or tomorrow.
What kinds of challenges did you have to surmount?
Manjit Minhas: Our business plan was different. It was to get a co-packer. We started with $10,000; not enough to buy boxes, never mind build a distillery or brewery. Once it was known that we were getting into the business, no distillery in Canada would even talk to us, because they were told by the big guys not to talk to us. It was very disheartening.
It started with small things like that, and then grew to government regulations as far as structures and locations as to where you can sell and how, and price points. The lobby effort by our competition was so big and successful, that they were able to put minimum price points, much above what we would be at.
It’s interesting how you have to look at problems and say, ‘Fine. We’ll grow in other places.’ We’ve grown immensely in the United States. The United States is our biggest market. We have partners such as Costco, Walgreens, Walmart, Trader Joes. We produce all of Costco and Trader Joe’s private label brand beers. Every single one.
All of those kinds of partnerships ended up happening down south. Whereas for most start-ups, you want to do it in your backyard where you are comfortable, where you are set up, where you live.
So, we ended up going to the US and then back up into Canada, where we were able to use what we learned down there.
What have you learned about what it takes to be a leader and a manager?
Manjit Minhas: I think you have to do every job yourself more than a couple of times to know who and what you are directing. Put yourself in your team member’s shoes to really know what their challenges are, and also to know what the metrics are for success. I really do believe that a good leader and a great leader knows how to measure success, and lead a team because they have been there, done that, or seen it. It’s hard to direct somebody when you don’t know the scope of the job, and what the challenges are in that job.
Every leader needs to know that they don’t know it all, neither do their staff.
I think that a lot of good leaders discover what they can bring in house, and what they have to go outside the walls for, and the advantages and disadvantages of both.
The other is continuous learning. I think that every leader has to continuously learn outside their comfort zone. To this day, I take negotiating courses every six months. I take updated finance courses. Your team is growing and your knowledge base has to continually grow. You do that by conversing and learning from others outside your company.
In order to lead properly, you have to work twice as hard as your team members. Unfortunately, a lot of people think it’s the opposite; a leader has to work half the amount as their team. I’m the first one in, and by far the last one out every day.
What have you noticed consistently that entrepreneurs tend not to do, but should?
Manjit Minhas: A buyable concept. I think so many people live in a bubble when they are starting out a business and don’t get out of that bubble to see, ‘Would anybody buy this?’
So many look at us like, ‘Oh, yeah. My sister and my mom wants it! My uncle who gave me $100,000 once believed in it, for sure they will!’
People get far down the line in making business plans, and websites, and product, developing, and spending money on patents, and all this kind of thing before they know if anybody will put $5 of their hard earned money to buy this product today, tomorrow, or ever.