6 Entrepreneurial Lessons from New Dragon Manjit Minhas

The Calgary beer baroness shares what she's learned while building her booming brewing business

Written by Murad Hemmadi
New Dragon Manjit Minhas Photo: Arthur Mola

Manjit Minhas wants you to know that she’s nicer than the upcoming season of Dragons’ Den makes her seem. “When you watch the show starting September 7 and I’m yelling at people, it’s because they’re asking for my hard-earned money,” she said. “And it’s the editing process.”

The Calgary-based entrepreneur is one of three new Dragons joining the CBC show, and those in the know suggests she’s the not-so-nice one. But speaking at the at the PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 Idea Exchange in Toronto on June 5, Minhas noted that her toughness is part of what’s made her successful. Minhas runs one of the country’s largest homegrown breweries, one part of a mini-conglomerate she’s built with brother Ravinder.

Here’s are six lessons Minhas has learned over the course of her inspiring entrepreneurial career.

Find mentors, in life or business

The Minhas siblings got their start in 1999, producing private label spirits for their parents’ liquor stores. Manjit Minhas was a petroleum engineering student at the University of Calgary at the time, and her father guided her through the early stages of setting up a business. “My dad guided me to set goals about what we needed to attain and what I wanted to attain—to have bigger vision,” she recalled. “At 19, it was a great idea, but I needed to be able to lay it out.”

Moni Minhas taught his daughter to build a business plan and identify a revenue model. A second mentor arrived in the form of someone Manjit Minhas met at a distillers’ conference. That distiller produced the Minhas’ early product and helped them navigate the complexities of manufacturing in the U.S. and selling in Canada. “In order to be successful, it’s very important and helpful to have mentors and people around us that support us and believe in us,” Minhas observed.”We win and lose as a team, and we have to be involved in each others’ lives and in the community in order to benefit from these mentors.”

Have the courage to succeed—don’t give up

In the summer of 2000, the Minhas siblings had gone camping in Banff. During one trek, their snack stop in the Mistaya Canyon was interrupted by the arrival of a grizzly bear. “We collected all the courage that we had, threw our food away, took out the bear spray we had in our pockets, and stood very still,” Minhas recalled. “We watched the bear climb up a tree in front of us, sit down for about 10 minutes, eat some berries, come back down, and walk away. It felt like an hour but it was really only about 10 minutes.”

The siblings had been discussing the possibility of expanding their then-private label brand into the generate market place and launching a beer brand. They’d considered these projects before, only to be deterred by the expense and the fear that more established competitors would be able to put the still-nascent company out of business. The meeting with the bear changed things said Minhas. “We resolved that we would always be cautious and conservative, yet courageously take on our competition,” she said. “But most importantly we’d enjoy the journey—just as we had the grizzly experience.”

The expansion clearly worked—beer now accounts for 70% of the company’s booze business. The Banff incident is commemorated in the business’s branding. “The crest of our company and the beer label includes a picture of a grizzly to remind us of that day when we decided to forge forward,” says Minhas.

Life is always not fair

Cracking the Ontario Beer Store retail network proved particularly difficult for Minhas. Seven years ago, the company was poised to make their big  debut when disaster struck. “I produced original commercials; I paid all the money in listing, retail and distribution fees; I produced a ton of beer,” Minhas recalled. “Three days before it was supposed to be on shelves and available for sale, I got a call from the Ontario Provincial Police.”

The OPP was investigating the company’s finances for suspected mafia ties, which Minhas blames on someone claiming that the 20-something siblings couldn’t conceivably afford to enter the Ontario market on their own. The investigation came to nothing Minhas said, but the damage was done: the beer went bad and the Beer Store barred the company. “All those fees were non-refundable, all the marketing campaigns had already rolled out—it was a waste of about $1.5 million at a time when we were still new,” said Minhas.

Two years later, she returned, this time with lawyers; Minhas beer is now available across the Beer Store and LCBO networks. The experience taught Minhas that nothing in business is fair. “It’s not fair if you want to go up against the big companies, it’s not fair if you want to invent a new category,” she said.

Spend what you earn, and no more

In 1999, Minhas tried to get a loan to start her first business. She had no assets and no track record, so the bank wanted her father to co-sign the loan. “I refused to bring him into the bank, because my ego was too big,” said Minhas. “I decided to start with what I had: $10,000 in savings from chores and other jobs, and a purple Rav4 that was gifted to me when I turned 16.”

Today, the Minhas empire has no debt, investors, partners, or lines of credit. “Once you’re successful—and only when you’re successful—banks and lenders are happy to give you money,” Minhas observed. But that means sharing the money generated by your business with investors. “I’m greedy—I’d rather keep all the profits to myself,” she quipped.

Growth is expensive even if you maintain as little overhead as possible, as Minhas does. “So we have grown steadily and not grown quickly, and that makes it sure that we have covered every angle, and that we can afford our growth,” she explained.

Find a passion

Stick to what you know, Minhas counselled. She pointed to her company’s failed 2006 expansion into wine, a parallel but very different market to the beer and spirits that she understands so well. “To this day, I have a lot of aging wine in my basement,” she quipped. “When you think that you are doing everything right, you think that you can do everything, which is not always true.”

Today, Minhas doesn’t do something unless she’s interested or an expert in it. “Find something that you’re passionate and knowledgeable about, and stick to it,” she advised. “Let’s not try to be the Jill of all trades, because it’s hard enough to do one thing well and right.”

Finding a career or a business that makes you want to get up in the morning is priceless said Minhas. “We spend 70% of our waking hours at work, and if we hate what we do, it’s a miserable life,” she observed.

It’s also important to accept assistance when it’s offered instead of politely declining as most people tend to. “I don’t shy away from asking for help,” Minhas said. She highlighted what she called the most important piece of advice she’s ever received: “When you make enough money, don’t go buy a super-expensive purse. Get somebody to clean your house.”

Trust, and be trusted

In 2002, Minhas wanted to produce beer in cans, but the Wisconsin brewery producing her products didn’t have a line fast enough to do that. “So we invested in a can line for them,” she remembered. “We bought it and got it installed, but for two years we didn’t have the time to take the four-hour flight to Wisconsin to see what we had actually bought.” She made do with pictures. Four years later, she bought the brewery.

“The idea of trust and being fair has always worked out for me, and it’s been rarely betrayed,” Minhas said. “I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it’s true.”


What are the best business lessons you’ve learned during your entrepreneurial career? Let us know using the comments section below.

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