Manjit Minhas knows a thing or two about rising to the top
“Curveballs are a blessing in disguise.” The co-founder of the world’s 10th largest brewery takes a nearly imperceptible pause for breath, and doubles down. “Even though it’s hard to see that when you’re right in the trenches and living through times of uncertainty and change, it’s important that you discover that something will come from being out of the ordinary. It’s disturbed what’s comfortable, and great growth comes when you’re in uncomfortable zones, as a company, as an individual, and as a team.”
If there’s anything Manjit Minhas knows about, it’s being out of the ordinary. The company she founded with her brother Ravinder, Minhas Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries, is on the cusp of turning 20, and she is a presence on Canada’s Top 40 under 40 list. Relax — we’ve done the math for you — Minhas started her firm as a 19-year-old.
The Calgary-born speaker, branding specialist, and mother of two is also a familiar face to Canadian viewers of the CBC show “Dragon’s Den,” where the feet of fledgling entrepreneurs are put to the fire each week. Manjit Minhas interrupted her hard-earned vacation to speak with BOSS about issues at the heart of success: risk, resilience, and her journey from selling well stock liquor to creating a life well lived.
The curveball that started it all for Minhas took flight when her father, an engineer in the oil and gas sector, lost his job in a down cycle and decided to open a liquor store to keep the family fed. Manjit Minhas initially planned to follow in his footsteps, studying petroleum engineering. But it was doing chores at the family’s stores that ignited her passion for sales and marketing, and over a handful of years she progressed from scrubbing floors, stacking pallets, and connecting with customers to having sales competitions with Ravinder.
“My parents had three stores. He used to be at one store and I used to be at (an)other. At Christmas time we would have selling competitions. We would pick a product and try to sell the most that day. What did you win? The glory.” Disappointed at the poor quality and high price of the well stock rye that local bars were selling, Manjit and Ravinder decided it was time to find a good bar whisky at a good price to sell through their family stores.
The sister-brother duo scraped together enough cash to invest in learning everything they could about the liquor business, attending industry conferences and finding mentors to lean on. Today, the companies within Minhas Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries create, manufacture, and market 100 brands of beer, wine, and spirits, and their products are sold in Canada, the U.S., and 16 other countries. But it wasn’t a simple love of adult beverages that moved her to build her reputation as a self-described beer baroness.
“Selling, creating, and marketing that is what I fell in love with as a teenager, definitely through my retail experience. I think the interesting part is that we found success pretty early the first time around, so it gives you a lot more guts because you’re naive when you’re 19 and you think it’s going to continue to happen that way. You’re too naive to the world to know really what is going to go on, how the real world works, and that life isn’t fair — which is the lesson we have learned many times over the last 20 years of being in business.
“I’m an engineer by education, so the numbers portion, the finance, the risk-taking, that all definitely came very close after. There are parts of the business I don’t love, but I have a partner who is my brother, and we are yin and yang, so he enjoys the things that I don’t. We have a great executive team.”
Staying Grounded and Bouncing Back
Garlanded with sweet success at an early age, Manjit Minhas hasn’t been without tough life lessons. She leverages her failures and triumphs when mentoring others. “I’m a competitive person, and that is also something that I was born with. It’s hard to create driven, competitive individuals. We all know that as parents, as leaders, you can set goals and you can keep pushing, but once an individual themselves wants to excel and keep going, you can’t make somebody feel that.”
She credits her natural discipline for her own ability to withstand challenges, and points to the ability to carry on after loss as a big differentiator between average entrepreneurs and successful ones. Central to that ability for Manjit Minhas is a strong network of family, friends, and trusted colleagues who can listen and offer their opinions – or not.
“We’re really focused a lot of the time on the negative, and that can be really hard on a psyche and on an individual,” she said. “Many of us feel like we’re stronger if we keep it in, but I would argue the opposite. When you communicate with those around you, whether it be at the office or at home, you are actually stronger because you’re able to not only bring other people in to solve your problems or to hear you out, because most of us will go crazy if we keep it inside our heads. Often you need to just get it out, even if you don’t need somebody’s opinion. Sometimes I’ll tell my husband or my brother, ‘I just need to get this out. I don’t need to hear anything back; I just need to get this off my chest. If you have anything constructive to say, great, otherwise I’m not looking to hear anything back.’ It’s important to be able to circle things in your own mind and in your heart, and resilience is the idea of letting it in, and then letting it out and moving on.”
The hard falls hurt, but leave great leaders stronger. “It’s good to be pushed a little bit deeper every once in awhile, to find new ways of doing things. When you come out of it on the other side, there’s nothing like it. Inevitably we may come out with pockets or bank accounts lighter, but overall always a happier, stronger team, and a better product at the end of the day.”
In 2014, Manjit Minhas joined the cast of Dragon’s Den, where her spirited take on the need for smarts, energy, and determination inspires hopeful upstarts looking for funding to launch their dreams. Her dragon’s fire is metered with kindness and humor, and comes from the heart of an engineer.
“Being an entrepreneur means that you have to be an optimist. There’s no room for pessimism as an entrepreneur because it will be really hard for you to get up every day with all the things that entrepreneurs face. Challenges, competition, red tape, bureaucracy, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. You have to wake up with that fire in your belly that says, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to work harder than everybody else, I’m going to find a solution, and be an optimist everyday.’ I believe that otherwise you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. My way of thinking is: Keep it coming. I will deal with it and send it back into the world or let it die, but I will definitely deal with it.”
That sense of resilience, of being able to recover quickly and keep moving, is something that the young execs she mentors on the show may need to learn. “Resilience is interesting because it goes against so much of what we’re taught and told growing up and in school. Resilience is one of those things that you aren’t necessarily born with, and that you have to deal with and learn what works for you. The word ‘no’ is fuel.”
The entrants in the forbidding Den hear that word quite a bit, a result of razor-honed instincts and Manjit Minhas’ trademark openness. Her biggest challenge as a Dragon, hearing thousands of pitches? “Finding that je ne sais quoi entrepreneurs have. Finding the ones who are going to be the resilient, tough, persistent ones with grit, and also the fun ones. Everybody wants to make money, but at the end of the day you want to enjoy doing it,” she admitted. Simply put, if you’re a jerk — don’t come begging.
“I find that even if I love the product and think that it might be the one they could make and do well with, I will either buy them out because I don’t want to work with you and I don’t want my teams to have to work with you. It’s just not worth it. One really surprising thing is how much of a personal and individual connection it becomes, entrepreneur to entrepreneur. And also, how bad people are at math,” she laughed. “It shocked me how much people don’t know the math of their company. Their margins, their cost to produce a product, their wholesale or retail costs — so many numbers people don’t have a clue about. It still shocks me.”
Advice from a Mompreneur
As the mother to two young girls, Manjit Minhas invests significant time and energy supporting early childhood education. Being a mom “inspires me to fund, educate, and give a deserving life to kids,” she revealed. “Everything to do with early childhood education impacts everything from graduation rates to going forward into relationships with their own spouses and children. The first five years of a child’s life are really transformative and set them up for the rest of their lives. … I have discovered that so many times you put money toward the end portion of the problem, but if you don’t start taking care of the root it will never fix itself. It will never get better. That’s so important.
“My girls have inspired me to build on that, and because I have two girls a lot of what I support are women’s initiatives, whether it be running businesses, entrepreneurship, mentoring women and helping them discover themselves and getting out of challenging situations at home and business. Not only is it my duty but my responsibility as someone who is often seen as a role model on TV and in the media to help give those women a voice and a running start that they may not necessarily get otherwise.”
Looking back over nearly two decades of phenomenal success, Manjit Minhas has some very specific advice to her younger self that applies to entrepreneurs of any age.
“I would give myself the advice that life isn’t fair. It might look like it from the outside when you read books and magazines, it might look like it is for everybody else and just not for you, but trust me, it’s not fair for anybody.
“Along with success comes many challenges. You’ll get through them. You’ll become a stronger, more confident, better individual for all of them. You will definitely be a better friend, a better wife, a better parent, and a better business partner.
“I would caution you that as a woman, I’m sorry, don’t believe the hype. You can’t have it all. Not at one time. You can’t have a robust, fabulous social life, business, and family life and be able to cook, clean, and still look good doing it at the same time. It’s impossible. Don’t aspire to it, and don’t kill yourself trying.
“In a whole life these things will all happen at one time or another, but it all won’t be at the same time. That’s OK,” she laughed. “As a mom I missed a lot of things, and I’m OK with that because I’m there for the things that matter. The girls can see where I am and what I’m doing and hopefully respect and admire that. Like most women, I definitely have a tough time with it. There are only so many hours in the day. It’s not going to happen on the same day, or in the same month. Maybe not even in the same decade, but it will happen.”