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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Taking on the Big Boys

By Linda White
Special to The Sun

As a young girl, Manjit Minhas could often be found behind a lemonade stand, hawking lemonade and candies. In order to maximize sales, she'd move the stand from one street to another throughout the day.

Fast forward a decade or so and you'd find an 18-year-old Minhas following in her parents' footsteps and tapping into Alberta's freshly-privatized retail liquor market with Mountain Crest Liquors Inc.
Manjit Minhas, 24, owns and manages Alberta's Mountain Crest Liquors Inc., Minhas Creek Brewing Company in Manitoba, Mountain Creek Brewing Company in several Midwestern states, and Lakeshore Creek Brewing Company in Ontario.

24-year-old entrepreneur

Today, the 24-year-old Calgary native also owns and manages Minhas Creek Brewing Company in Manitoba, Mountain Creek Brewing Company in several Midwestern states, and the recently-launched Lakeshore Creek Brewing Company in Ontario.

"My parents always instilled in us a willingness to challenge authority and not settle for the norm," Minhas says of her entrepreneurial spirit. "When liquor stores in Alberta went private about 11 years ago, my parents jumped on the bandwagon and opened three stores that quickly enjoyed some of the largest sales in the province."

She was in her first year of university when she saw an untapped market for quality products at reasonable prices. She travelled to a number of distilleries, including one in Kentucky, where the owner took the budding entrepreneur under his wing. "He was intrigued by my dream to take on the big guys in Canada and became my mentor. He put me in contact with people who helped me make my recipes," Minhas says.

She entered the market at just the right time. Tequila prices shot through the roof, making her $24 bottles an instant hit. According to Profit Guide, Mountain Crest Liquors is growing 50% a year and earned $8.7 million in revenue in 2003, up from just $211,000 in 2000.

Minhas soon decided the beer industry could be shaken up as well. She hired a Canadian brew master and has steadily introduced brands unique to each province -- all with the common slogan: "Damn Good Beer!"

Though her degree in petroleum engineering isn't directly related to what she's doing, Minhas believes it's key to her success. "Engineering is a passion I had. I became strong in math, which has been good for me, because we're pinching pennies every day. Many people ask me why I didn't take business or marketing, but I'm glad I didn't. The people who do business or marketing have the same school of thought. When I approached them about my advertising campaign, I got the same thing the other brewers were doing: image building."

Again, she chose to follow her instincts. Her recent expansion into Ontario is accompanied by a TV advertising "consumer revolt" campaign featuring mock protesters shouting, "Down with higher prices!" Featured protesters range from young men of colour to a 70-year-old woman -- faces not typically seen in traditional beer marketing. "Women and people from different cultures drink beer. I'd be stupid not to acknowledge that," she says.

Her goal is to sell 3 million cases in Ontario in her first year. In the last six months, she's sold half-a-million cases in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois combined. She expects to sell 1 million cases in Manitoba this year.

But hers is no overnight success. "I work 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a very demanding industry run by an old boys' club. I am the David in the David and Goliath story," Minhas says. "There's no backing down, no matter what is thrown at me."

She's faced huge challenges along the way. "The beer industry is a zero growth industry. Every beer I sell, I'm taking it away from my competitors. I'm in Ontario because of persistence. No pain no gain, as they say. Nothing comes easily, that's for sure. Nothing's given to you on a silver platter. Many times I thought I should give up and be happy with what I have. But at the end of the day, I feel there is a bigger challenge out there."

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