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Manjit Minhas, entrepreneurial tour de force

By Jana Manolakos

Hers is the face that could have launched a thousand ships, but instead this stunning, petite brunette launched a Canadian beer, wine and spirits empire with sales topping $187 million last year. Meet Manjit Minhas, an entrepreneurial tour de force and a perpetual motion machine whose high energy catapulted Minhas Breweries, Distillery and Wineries, a company she co-founded with her brother 20 years ago. It’s now in the global spotlight as the ninth largest brewery in the world, a far leap since first opening its doors as a small importer of private-label spirits for a chain of liquor stores her parents owned in Calgary. 

Today, Minhas’ calendar is packed with business meetings, pitches and deals; and, an all-important Saturday morning date with one of her two daughters for a school art project. Tonight she’s flying home to Calgary, Alberta, having just finished a promotional appearance in Vancouver for Dragon’s Den, the popular television series on which she appears as one of six dragons, all business moguls and powerhouse investors. 

When she was 19 and just one year over the legal drinking age, Minhas gave up pursuing a degree in petroleum engineering at the University of Regina, and sold her car to start what would become Minhas Breweries, Distillery and Wineries, scraping together an initial investment of $10,000 with her younger brother Ravinder. That was 1999. Three years later, they began importing beer, and in 2006 bought an established Wisconsin-based brewing company. 

“We were now a real brewer and we owned the brewery. And that was definitely our ‘We made it’ moment. It gave us the confidence to dream even bigger, and to keep moving forward in lots of different ways,” says Minhas.

Unable to find a supplier in Canada for their spirits, the sister and brother duo had turned to the United States, connecting with one in Kentucky. Minhas explains, “Because of NAFTA, we were able to bring alcohol back to Canada and vice versa when we got filter facilities in Calgary. NAFTA definitely was a big part of our success, and still is.”

Since then, the company has seen continued growth with assets that include the Calgary-based Minhas Micro Brewery, the Minhas Distillery, Minhas Winery and Minhas Kitchen located in Monroe, Wisconsin. A superlative deal maker and branding maven, Minhas secured a lucrative agreement with Costco, to make all of the Kirkland-brand beer worldwide, as well as all the craft beers under the Trader Joe’s label in the U.S. Today the company accounts for 120 name-brand beers, wine, spirits and liquors and distributes products in 20 countries, 40 U.S. states and almost all of Canada.

They were dealing with so many different brands, creating private labels and different point of sale materials that it became costly to contract out.  “Early on we decided that we needed to be as vertically integrated as possible along this journey, so we started a graphic design company,” Minhas says. Similarly, they own a trucking company and TV production studio which was started six years ago to make their own commercials and support advertising. Spotlight Productions is now the fourth largest production company in Canada.

“It allowed us to be faster than everybody else in our industry, from conceptual ideas to actually having product on shelves. That’s definitely been one of the keys to our success: our speed,” she explains.

While U.S. tariffs on aluminum have left an impact along with a weaker Canadian dollar, for Minhas it’s just part of business. “They definitely have affected us in our bottom line, but it happens to everybody. We’re not unique. There are a lot of things that a business owner doesn’t have control over, and you just have to keep going.”

Five people sit on the company board of directors which includes two women, steering the largely male workforce. Minhas admits, “Manufacturing is still so male dominated. When you’re looking for mechanics and forklift drivers and delivery drivers, there just aren’t women who are attracted to those jobs.” She points out that among the 300 employees, women can be found mostly in departments like accounting and finance, with a few more in the manufacturing plant. 

When asked whether women bring a certain attribute to entrepreneurship, Minhas points to an award the company received from a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder organization for being the first Canadian brewery to voluntarily place warning labels on all its cans and bottles. Minhas says, “As a responsible brewer and as a mother, I think that it is very important for people to understand the effects of alcohol.” 

The company and its partners have also taken steps to manage their environmental footprint by cracking down on packaging, eliminating the use of plastic rings for cans and relying instead on tight cases. “We push the use of cans because they are 100 percent recyclable. We do as much as we can in the manufacturing process to be environmentally friendly not only for the bottom line, but because it’s great for the world that I am raising my two young girls in.” 

Minhas makes it evident that her family has played a large part in her success as an entrepreneur, a role that remains elusive for many women struggling to meet the social expectations and financial challenges of raising a family, caring for aging parents and household commitments. “Being an entrepreneur unfortunately isn’t a job that you can take vacations from,” she admits. “It’s all-encompassing and can be overwhelming for a lot of people. Also, it’s not something that turns a profit right away, so you need to have the patience, the perseverance and the grit to continue until you see dividends. It’s hard for a lot of women.” 

No matter where the business takes her, Minhas still actively participates with her family and will often field calls from her girls asking what’s for lunch or to help find a favourite shirt. Her support comes from people both at Minhas Breweries, Distillery and Wineries, and at home – “especially at home, where I can rely on parents and in-laws and aunts and uncles and friends and paid help, and a great spouse, my husband, to help make it all work.”

In part, the strong family values and intrepid entrepreneurial spirit stem from her parents, especially her father. Trained as a mechanical engineer in India, Moni Minhas immigrated to Calgary in the latter part of the 1970s, where he worked in the booming petroleum industry until the early ’80s, when a global recession hit hard and he lost his job. It led to new beginnings in the liquor industry for him. After he sold the liquor stores to a public company in 2005, he started and sold two oil companies. His newest project, at age 65, is a distillery he built last year in Regina. 

Pointing to her father, Minhas says, “Being a good entrepreneur is about being able to have that drive and reinvent yourself over and over in your life based on market needs, based on your needs and wants, and what excites you.”  She says success as an entrepreneur is about constantly reinventing yourself to continue fuelling passion and to remain relevant in a changing world. For Minhas and her brother, this year marks the 20th anniversary of being in business, and while there have been a few bumps along the way – including a rough start gaining credibility and sales for their new winery business – it’s full steam ahead for this dynamic duo. To her goes the last word: “Take your journey one step at a time, master each day. Live in the moment and do not look at anybody else’s life to define your own score card.”  

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