Be concise and know your financials — that’s Manjit Minhas’ advice for young entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas.
Minhas is the co-founder and CEO of Minhas Brewery, Distillery, and Winery, and is one of Canada’s new Dragons on the hit CBC show Dragon’s Den. She is a straight-forward and blunt businesswoman with an incredible passion for innovative ideas. When she speaks of the new products she is constantly exposed to on Dragon’s Den, she does so with tremendous respect and excitement.
“I see myself in a lot of these entrepreneurs,” she says. “I know there is no book to map these challenges. I love that I can help guide them and, on the flip side, help people stop when I think they are dumping their own money, and sometimes other people’s money, on something that in my experience is not going to work.”
“If I can save someone’s livelihood, that’s necessary and my role as a mentor and venture capitalist.”
The 36-year-old started her own business at the age of 19 after her first year of university, where she was studying petroleum engineering. At the time, her father had been let go from the oil patch and decided, with much pushing from his friends, to go into the liquor business. He purchased three stores in Calgary. Minhas and her brother grew up in the industry and both realized there was an opportunity for growth.
The siblings sold their car for $10,000 and launched Mountain Crest Spirits. “I discovered that bars and restaurants were not brand loyal,” Minhas says. “They were looking for cheapest bar stock that week.” The idea was to create good quality spirits that, because of the low price, restaurants would become accustomed to and the result would be loyalty. Tequila and Irish cream were some of their best sellers.
“Our goal was, service, quality, and volume volume volume. That was the start of our real big empire story.”
In 2002, they launched into beers. Their first beer, a classic mountain lager, was made with only four ingredients and sold for only a dollar, which was unheard of at that time. They eventually purchased their first brewery in Wisconsin — the second oldest brewery in the U.S. — and since then, the company has grown immensely. Minhas and her brother now have breweries in Calgary and Mexico, as well as two wineries in Chile. Their products are sold throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as 43 states throughout the United States and 15 other countries in Europe, Asia and South America.
In 2016, Minhas’ companies made over $187 million in revenues. Minhas has been honoured with several industry awards for her success, including PROFIT magazine’s “Top Growth Entrepreneur”, Top 100 Women Entrepreneurs in Canada, Canada’s Top 40 under 40, and the Sikh Centennial Foundation Award, among others.
“I can say I didn’t have much of a typical university life, but no pain no gain,” she says. “My sacrifice was my 20s, and I guess I say my education because I could have done better. I had other dreams and passions and I’m glad that I did. I don’t regret the last 17 years.”
Minhas is constantly looking for ways to expand and grow her thriving business. They started to fashion new beer flavours, even appealing to the gluten-free crowds and the boxer beer enthusiasts. When Minhas purchased her first brewery in Wisconsin, she also happened upon the rights and recipes to the old-fashioned soda the facility owner made during prohibition. This inspired her to continue that business, selling soda and soda-inspired nano-filtration boxer beer. This summer, they are adding new flavours of boxer beer, including black cherry and ginger. Last year, they added hard root beer, grape, and cream soda to their repertoire.
“We had a great award-winning soda line that we added clear malt base too — a proprietary method we have discovered,” she says. “We clarify it and it becomes colourless, tasteless, odourless and we add alcohol to the soda. There is no bad aftertaste of beer because we’ve taken that taste out in order to taste the soda, unlike other brands in the market. Innovation is key to success.”
In 2015, Minhas was invited to appear in Dragon’s Den, a Canadian reality television show that allows entrepreneurs to pitch business ideas to potential investors — known as “the Dragons”. She prides herself on her bluntness and her honesty, but above all else, she loves the mentoring aspect of the show. Minhas says she was surprised by how many products she has seen that didn’t already exist in the market. Her investments are plastered proudly all over her website.
“I do believe it’s important for women to support each other and people in different industries to talk to each other,” she says. “In my industry, there is not a lot of women. It’s about guiding a newcomer, a new entrepreneur through the challenges everyone has — work-life balance, finances, regulation, all those things that are really generic to any business, human resources. That, I feel, is my biggest contribution.”
Minhas starts filming season three of Dragon’s Den at the end of this month.
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