How to Build an Empire
When Manjit Minhas started her business at 19, she was looking for a little extra income during university. Today, she’s an entrepreneur with an international brewery, interests in several other businesses, and a spot on CBC’s Dragons’ Den.
By Shelley White | Photography by Nathan Elson
Manjit Minhas didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. As a teenager growing up in Calgary, she imagined she would end up an engineer in the oil and gas industry.
“I had a strong math and science background and that’s what you did with your math and science in Calgary,” says the 35-year-old co-founder and CEO of Minhas Breweries and Distillery and star of CBC’s Dragons’ Den. “My dad worked in the oil patch and it was comforting and secure and there were always jobs, and that was my plan too.”
But Manjit had a passion for sales, an interest she discovered while working in her parents’ liquor stores in the 90s. (Her father, Moni, bought the liquor store chain after being laid off from his oil patch job, taking advantage of then-Premier Ralph Klein’s privatization of Alberta’s liquor industry.)
“I always had this thing in me—I loved the idea of selling and I was interested in why people bought what they bought and how it was marketed to them and what stuck with them and what didn’t,” she says.
Manjit’s path to entrepreneurial success began when she was just 19, when she and her 18-year-old brother Ravinder came up with the idea of selling private label spirits to the bars and restaurants who were liquor store clients. While studying to be petroleum engineers, they started a company on the side called Mountain Crest Liquors.
“The initial idea was it would be a little extra income for my brother and I while we were in university, but very early on we discovered there was a general marketplace niche that also could be filled with this product,” says Manjit.
The business grew, and they branched out into beer, positioning their brand as good quality products made with “real ingredients” at a fair price. By concentrating on the rural and small town market, they gained a following, then worked their way back into the cities, giving the “big boys” a run for their money.
Upon graduation, Manjit had to decide whether to continue to grow the business or go into the corporate world. “Financially, it was a tie,” she says. But she and Ravinder opted to go all-in with their company.
“There’s nothing like being your own boss,” she says. “It was that joy of selling a case of beer or vodka and your customer consuming it and wanting to come back for more.”
Now, Minhas Breweries and Distillery sells products in five Canadian provinces, 43 states throughout the U.S. and 15 other countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. In addition to her primary enterprise, Manjit’s expanding empire includes interests in several other companies: Spotlight TV and Film Productions, Minhas Design and Marketing Inc., Auburn Glass Sculpting and Shergill Construction. She attributes her success to two simple factors: perseverance and hard work.
“People are always looking for some big secret that only a few of us know, but really at the end of the day, it’s about work,” she says. “It’s about constantly evolving and improving your efficiencies, your product, your culture. You need to be always looking at your company, saying, ‘How can we do this better?’ Otherwise you won’t make it in the long run, there’s just too much competition.”
Manjit has taken her expertise to the masses as a dragon on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. She says she’s learning a great deal from the experience, from both the entrepreneurs who pitch their business plans and from her fire-breathing cohorts.
“It’s been interesting learning from the four other type-A personalities who have been so successful in their own right in totally different worlds than I’m in,” she says. “We were [taping the show] together for five weeks, 13 hours a day, eating three meals together and after day two, the niceties go out the window and you talk about your real life and challenges and successes and family.”
As the mother of two young girls, aged 3 and 6, Manjit admits she sometimes struggles with the question of balance.
The close-knit Minhas clan has been a great source of support, and she enthusiastically advocates mixing family and business, particularly when it comes to Minhas’s co-owner brother, Ravinder.
“I can’t imagine not mixing family with business,” she says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t talk to my brother. I believe that no one was meant to be alone in the world and it’s nice to have someone to share your successes or a shoulder to cry on for the failures, too. Also, there’s no competition. I didn’t have to worry that when I had my first kid, my spot would be gone when I came back.”
When it comes to advice, Ms. Minhas says emphatically: live within your means.
“We were taught when we were growing up, you buy with cash and you own it. And you only do what financially makes sense for your own pocket, not what dreams you may have,” she says. “When it comes to signing on the dotted line, it’s about what you can afford, not what you think you should be able to afford or what you want to be able to afford.”
And for anyone considering leaping, like she did, into the wild world of business ownership?
“Do something you love, because being an entrepreneur is a long, hard process,” she says.
“It isn’t an 8-hour day job, it’s something you’re constantly thinking about, and it’s not for everyone. You have to know enough about yourself to know who you are and what it is you really want.”