We sat down with the Dragon to discuss the changes that fame brings, Canadian liquor laws and her favourite beer
Manjit Minhas was studying engineering at the University of Calgary when she and her younger brother, Ravinder, began importing private-label spirits for a chain of liquor stores owned by their parents.
In 2002, the family started importing beer; four years later, after they bought one of the oldest U.S. brewers, Joseph Huber Brewing Co., Minhas Craft Brewery was created.
Today, Minhas is among the biggest craft breweries in the U.S., ranking 12th in 2016 sales volume, according to the Brewers Association, and supplies stores like Costco, Walmart, Trader Joe’s and Sobeys. The company operates breweries in Calgary and Wisconsin, with the latter facility also housing a distillery from which the company distributes spirits.
Although their parents are still involved in settling the occasional dispute between the siblings, Manjit and Ravinder are now fully in charge. She runs the marketing side of things, while he handles sales.
Three years ago, Manjit was chosen to fill a coveted chair on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, in which Canadian entrepreneurs pitch well-known business executives to invest in their companies. The show is now in its 12th season.
BCBusiness talked to Manjit Minhas during a recent visit to Vancouver.
How does running a brewery compare to other industries?
I think the core of running a business is the same for anybody: having a plan, executing, having a great product, having consumers and, in our case, retailers, and relying on their feedback.
I’ve discovered through all of the different industries that I’m in through my investments, whether I’m selling a baby jacket extender, or an automatic fire extinguisher, or cereal, the basics of the business are the same. It’s just small nuances in the development of a product.
You said that about 15 per cent of Minhas Craft Brewery's business is in Canada. What provinces are you in?
B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario. I don’t know if it’s exactly 15—my brother does the sales split, so I’m not sure right now—but it’s a small portion. We are trying to grow that; there are lots of provinces, and the territories, that we don’t cover at the moment. Ontario is huge, but it’s a very small part of our pie right now; it’s a tough one to break.
You had some trouble breaking into that market, correct?
Yes. It’s a very protected environment in Ontario because Molson-Coors, Labatt and Sleeman own the Beer Stores, so it’s very unique in that breweries own it, and they stifle their competition, and we’ve seen that.
It’s not a fair playing field. It is hard to make waves; it’s such a big population and per capita the highest beer consumption in the country. Everybody wants to be there, and everybody wants to play in that market. I love competition, but I do like fair competition, as in we all get on the shelf and it’s up to the consumers to decide what they want, not all the other shenanigans that go on behind the scenes.
So Ontario has been a big headache for most Western Canadian beer companies. It’s hard and it’s sad when you can [only] find success in other countries. And we early on discovered that there was a fair playing field in the United States and Mexico. So we decided to spend our time energy and money in other areas where people wanted us.
Did you have trouble getting into B.C.?
No, they were pretty good. A couple years ago, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch had a new mandate, and that mandate made it more of a fair playing field to compete with the private stores. So that absolutely helped us to put our products forward and compete with everybody else.
Things like blind taste testing, that’s what should matter, not whether or not the buyer has a relationship with the CEO or whether they vacation together. We have a great relationship here, and I think the government has done a fabulous job overhauling the BCLDB over the last couple years, and we’re selling a lot of product. Our Blarney’s Irish Cream Liqueur is one of the biggest sellers here, along with our Polo Club gin, and our hard root beer.
Your popularity must have seen a huge spike once you got onto Dragons’ Den. How did you handle that and all the changes that came with it?
In my personal life, I absolutely got more attention. People want to give me more things, people want more of my money, absolutely. But how I’ve handled it is like I’ve handled everything else in my life: I don’t take my self too seriously.
It’s also nice that I have a brother that’s always bringing me back to reality. But I think in Canada, people see you not as a celebrity but as an individual. People are easy to talk to; they don’t do or say crazy things. Sure, I get my fair share of haters on Twitter, but it’s one of those things that I’m OK with it as long as there’s constructive criticism and as long as it’s not superficial. If you have an opinion and you don’t agree with me, great, I love to debate; I love healthy debate.
But I think when it gets personal, especially for women, I think it’s unfair. I think women are held up to a different standard. When I say something in the Den, for example, that’s sometimes blunt and very honest, I know many of my fellow Dragons—including the men—are thinking I will get flak for saying it, because people don’t expect women to be so blunt and upfront. So I have always operated with “I am who I am; I’m honest and true to my values, and if you don’t like it, that’s OK; I’m OK with it.” We’re not scripted; we’re not told what to say, how to act, or, in my case, whether to roll my eyes or not. It is who I am.
What’s your favourite beer that you make?
Oh, God, that’s like asking what’s your favourite child. It’s so funny because it changes very often for me, because we have so many new ones coming out. And just like anybody, my flavour and my taste profile have changed, too. Right now I would say it’s a wheat-style beer that we do out of Calgary called White Wolf, named after our Calgary brewmaster, Wolfgang.
Manjit Minhas dishes on her favourite Dragons’ Den presentations
“It was shocking to me that it hadn’t been thought of before. The engineer in me was like, ‘Why hasn’t this been invented yet, that it’d be heat-activated and not smoke-activated?’ It was just common sense.
“I got to carry their baby around when I was demonstrating the product; that was really a lot of fun. That was my first season on the show. When your belly is growing wild, you sometimes need a new jacket. But this couple, because they have four kids, they said, ‘This is ridiculous’, and they invented a jacket extender that you could just zip into your current jacket. And then after you could have your baby in there and instead of having tons of blankets on them, you can just zip them into your jacket with your own body heat. It just makes sense.”
“This season in our student episode last week, there were a couple amazing students that had created this heart monitor. And I knew firsthand that it doesn’t exist because my mom had atrial fibrillation and we were in the midst of going through it, and the last two years she was being monitored by this very old-school device after she had surgery. And it was huge; it had to be hooked up to a phone. It was just ridiculous. I thought, ‘In this day and age, nothing exists for this?’ and they created something tiny. It was unbelievable how accurate it was and how innovative it was to change the health care system.”