MANJIT K. MINHAS "Beer Baroness" Exclusive Interview
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 across the USA, Canada and to 16 different countries such as Japan, UK, Brazil and Korea. To date, her companies have sold over seven billion pints of beer.
Manjit and Ravinder opened a new brewery in Calgary in June 2012 - the Minhas Micro Brewery. 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 Costo contains the least amount of packaging compared to any other product in North America.
Manjit has won several business awards including: “Top Growth Entrepreneur” award from Profit magazine, “Up and Coming CEO” from The National Post, Global TV Woman of Vision Award, Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of The Year Finalist, and Chatelaine Magazine’s Top Entrepreneur Woman of The Year.
MY BUSINESS MAGAZINE asked Manjit all about how she began, some of the big hurdles in her career, and what it takes to be a great leader.
What made you decide to go into the beer business?
Manjit: We actually started in the spirits business. Beer is just what has made us rich and famous. My parents used to own liquor stores in Alberta – because of its privatized system.
We started in spirits producing private label spirits for their brand. About two years into that – I was 19 and an engineering student, toward the end of my life as a potential engineer – we got into the beer business.
That’s when we went into general marketplace, came out with Mountain Crest and went into Alberta by storm with this 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 – letting you know who is brewing your beer. My brother was in all of the ads. We believed in a high quality of product at a fair, everyday price. So, we wanted to keep lower overhead, have lower margins, but have a great Canadian-tasting beer with the four ingredients that should be in beer – no fillers, no rice, no corn syrup.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. Now, we are the tenth largest brewery. We sell in Canada, the US, and 16 other countries. We have breweries and distilleries in Canada, US, Mexico, and Barbados – for our rum. It’s continually growing.
My brother and I still own it. We’re not public, have no other investors or anything like that – which is ironic because my role in Dragons’ Den is to be an investor in others’ businesses. We don’t have any other investors in our business.
MBM: Tell me what it’s like to work with family. What are the hurdles, and the positives?
Manjit: 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.
You can be more casual because it is family. There are no niceties or formality necessary.
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. It is really easy when you are going up against these massive, billion dollar conglomerates to give up when they throw things at you. I think that has really helped us by doing it together.
MBM: What kinds of challenges did you have to surmount?
Manjit: First and foremost, before we even had a company, we needed a supplier. We weren’t building – now people build them right away, but that was not our business plan.
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 – because they were told by the big guys not to talk to us – didn’t even entertain us or talk to us. It was very disheartening – not even to get a quote, but to get a bottle of vodka made. It was impossible.
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.
MBM: What have you learned along the way about what it takes to be a leader and a manager?
Manjit: I think, first and foremost, 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, I think really impossible, 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. Consultants and outside help, at certain times, is really the most effective and efficient way to learn, but also to grow at a pace without necessarily doing everything in house. At a certain point, bring that in house.
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. I take a lot of courses still, and I think it’s important, because you have to continually grow as a leader. Your team is growing and your knowledge base has to continually grow. You do that by conversing and learning from others outside your company. I think, 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.
MBM: What’s fascinating about being a Dragon?
Manjit: At the end of the day, all of our values are so similar that it’s astonishing to me.
The other things is, we’ve all become such great friends, because we spend so much time together filming, we have so many deals together, but also we’re with our families for the month that we are filming. So, we see different sides of each other.
I think the most fascinating part is getting to know each other on a personal level, and learning from each other. For me, having a young family, I’m also trying to navigate that, and it’s nice to meet people who have had success not only in their professional life, but their personal life. That’s been a learning curve for me, and something that my ears are always open for – to see how people are raising healthy, happy, fulfilled, successful kids. That is now one of my biggest challenges, and worries as a mom.
MBM: What have you noticed consistently that entrepreneurs tend not to do, but should? Manjit: First and foremost, would be a buyable concept. Does anybody want this product? 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?’
MBM: Yes, but my mom liked it!
Manjit: We get that so often. Not somebody who is looking out for your feelings; somebody who is not related to you, who is willing to put their money where their mouth is.
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, ever.
I think that’s one of the simplest things, seen most out of the 250 pitches we see every year.
Dave Gordon has penned more than a thousand articles, and more than five hundred editorials, on every topic imaginable. He writes regularly on domestic and international politics, current events, culture, relationship issues, and much more.
He has spent time in the newsrooms of the Toronto Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, National Post and eye Weekly.