Manjit Minhas was 19, studying petroleum engineering at university when she opened a spirits business with her younger brother. Three years later, they expanded to include beer. The company now produces more than 90 beers, spirits, liqueurs and wines that sell in Canada, the U.S. and 16 other countries. Minhas Brewery makes the Kirkland brand beer for Costco worldwide and craft beers under the Trader Joe's label in the U.S. They've also established related businesses: a glass producing and labelling plant for bottling; a graphic design company and print shop for marketing material; a TV and film production company that produces their commercials but has expanded to documentaries. The group of companies generated more than $155-million in revenue last year.
Now Ms. Minhas, 35, has a new title to add to her CV: Dragon. The lifelong Calgarian is one of the new money-investing entrepreneurs on the hit CBC TV series, now heading into its 10th season.
We reached Ms. Minhas – the "beer baron" as she's called on the show – in Calgary.
How did you, at 19, get into the liquor business?
My parents owned three private liquor stores here in Alberta; they'd been privatized by Ralph Klein. So I grew up around the industry. I was 13 when they opened them and I worked there Christmases and summer holidays stocking shelves and mopping and everything else you do in a family business. They were servicing 60 per cent of the bars and restaurants and major retail chains here. The idea came to me that they needed a house brand of spirits – Superstore has PC and Safeway has Compliments. Most people don't know this, but if you go to a bar or a restaurant and order a rum and coke, you get bar stock, which basically means you get whatever was cheapest that week to bring in. And some weeks it's good quality stuff; some weeks not so much. So the idea came that my parents not only have a house brand but that it be good quality and [at an] everyday low price. So that's how it started; it was a line of spirits that we brought – rum, rye, gin, brandy, scotch and tequila and Irish cream. And the timing was very good because there was a shortage of agave and I had [locked up supply and a price for tequila] just before the shortage hit. I did very well with it because I was [charging] about 24 bucks a bottle and everybody else was [charging] like $40. So that really cemented our position in the industry and got us some great volumes and in turn got us some profit. So I discovered that this might actually be a full time gig. Then in 2002 we brought out beer. We were the first ones in the country to do a buck a beer. Many people have copied us for sure. But we were the first ones to do that. And I guess the rest is history.
How did you wind up on Dragons' Den?
Two days after Arlene [Dickinson] announced that she is not coming back this year, I got a call from them saying you've been on our radar for a while; would you be interested in coming down for a screen test? It was Thursday afternoon; they [asked me to go to Toronto on] Monday. I said let me clear out my schedule, I'll get back to you in an hour. So we went down, we saw six pitches. I got a call a week later [saying] they want me. And I said, okay, let me talk it over with my brother and my family because not only is it a big time commitment but also as celebrity-status goes, it would be life-changing, so I have to consider all the other people in my life. And I'm not like some of the past Dragons in that I'm still in a fledgling, growing business because I'm at a different age. Everybody else is a little bit older and their business is further along. I talked to my brother and he was thrilled and ready to take on more responsibility for the weeks I would be filming. I talked to my family; I have two young girls so my husband and I did have to discuss that. So we all were on board and I signed on the dotted line and showed up a week later in Toronto.
How do you find the time for one more thing in your life? You've got this business, you already travel a lot, you have a young family – and now this TV show sends you to another city for a big chunk of time. Why did you decide it was worth that sort of commitment?
I really felt that I was at the stage where I could impart my knowledge based on my experience to budding entrepreneurs and help them along. I know what it's like to start something from scratch and the trials and tribulations and challenges – but also the successes. I've had people help me along the way so I guess it's a bit of paying it forward. Helping somebody else achieve their dreams is important to me at this stage. And I think I can really help them be entrepreneurs, either with advice or cash if I make a deal with them. But it also goes the other way. Some people, just as much as they need an idea to push [a business] idea forward, they need help to kill an idea in business. It's important to me that people don't waste their time, money and energy. Sometimes it can sound harsh to an outsider, but sometimes people need a reality check.
Are you a tough Dragon? How would you describe your role on the show?
I'm an honest Dragon, which means I'm me. By Day Two I forgot that there's literally two dozen cameras on me all the time. I treated it like the person is sitting in my office and asking me for money and pitching me their idea. Sometimes the honest questions and answers aren't what everybody wants to hear so I can be tough. But I think tough is different than mean. I absolutely, during editing, will come across as tough but I'm okay with that because it is true and it's me and I think it's most entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, this is real money, and this is my money we're talking about. This is not CBC's, it's not some bank's; it is my hard-earned money so I need to believe in you and believe what you have to tell me and see your passion and desire and see that you're coachable and you will handle the business and my money properly.
What was the experience like, filming the show?
It's the definition of reality television. We know nothing about the people or the businesses before they walk down those stairs. It's all revealed to us as it's revealed to the audience. We have no background information. All we're told is their names so we don't mess that up. There's no reshooting of anything; what happens, happens. We get 60 minutes maximum to talk to them and make a decision either way that is binding. We saw 200 pitches; half the pitches we see don't even go to air. I'm in the process of closing a lot of the deals that I made on the show. I can tell you that I made deals, but that's all I'm allowed to tell you.
Season Ten of Dragons' Den begins Oct. 7 at 8 pm on CBC TV.
This interview has been edited and condensed.