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Woman of the Week: Manjit Minhas

Be concise and know your financials — that’s Manjit Minhas’ advice for young entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas.

Minhas is the co-founder and CEO of Minhas Brewery, Distillery, and Winery, and is one of Canada’s new Dragons on the hit CBC show Dragon’s Den. She is a straight-forward and blunt businesswoman with an incredible passion for innovative ideas. When she speaks of the new products she is constantly exposed to on Dragon’s Den, she does so with tremendous respect and excitement.

“I see myself in a lot of these entrepreneurs,” she says. “I know there is no book to map these challenges. I love that I can help guide them and, on the flip side, help people stop when I think they are dumping their own money, and sometimes other people’s money, on something that in my experience is not going to work.”

“If I can save someone’s livelihood, that’s necessary and my role as a mentor and venture capitalist.”

The 36-year-old started her own business at the age of 19 after her first year of university, where she was studying petroleum engineering. At the time, her father had been let go from the oil patch and decided, with much pushing from his friends, to go into the liquor business. He purchased three stores in Calgary. Minhas and her brother grew up in the industry and both realized there was an opportunity for growth.

The siblings sold their car for $10,000 and launched Mountain Crest Spirits. “I discovered that bars and restaurants were not brand loyal,” Minhas says. “They were looking for cheapest bar stock that week.” The idea was to create good quality spirits that, because of the low price, restaurants would become accustomed to and the result would be loyalty. Tequila and Irish cream were some of their best sellers.

“Our goal was, service, quality, and volume volume volume. That was the start of our real big empire story.”

In 2002, they launched into beers. Their first beer, a classic mountain lager, was made with only four ingredients and sold for only a dollar, which was unheard of at that time. They eventually purchased their first brewery in Wisconsin — the second oldest brewery in the U.S. — and since then, the company has grown immensely. Minhas and her brother now have breweries in Calgary and Mexico, as well as two wineries in Chile. Their products are sold throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as 43 states throughout the United States and 15 other countries in Europe, Asia and South America.

In 2016, Minhas’ companies made over $187 million in revenues. Minhas has been honoured with several industry awards for her success, including PROFIT magazine’s “Top Growth Entrepreneur”, Top 100 Women Entrepreneurs in Canada, Canada’s Top 40 under 40, and the Sikh Centennial Foundation Award, among others.

“I can say I didn’t have much of a typical university life, but no pain no gain,” she says. “My sacrifice was my 20s, and I guess I say my education because I could have done better. I had other dreams and passions and I’m glad that I did. I don’t regret the last 17 years.”

Minhas is constantly looking for ways to expand and grow her thriving business. They started to fashion new beer flavours, even appealing to the gluten-free crowds and the boxer beer enthusiasts. When Minhas purchased her first brewery in Wisconsin, she also happened upon the rights and recipes to the old-fashioned soda the facility owner made during prohibition. This inspired her to continue that business, selling soda and soda-inspired nano-filtration boxer beer. This summer, they are adding new flavours of boxer beer, including black cherry and ginger. Last year, they added hard root beer, grape, and cream soda to their repertoire.

“We had a great award-winning soda line that we added clear malt base too — a proprietary method we have discovered,” she says. “We clarify it and it becomes colourless, tasteless, odourless and we add alcohol to the soda. There is no bad aftertaste of beer because we’ve taken that taste out in order to taste the soda, unlike other brands in the market. Innovation is key to success.”

In 2015, Minhas was invited to appear in Dragon’s Den, a Canadian reality television show that allows entrepreneurs to pitch business ideas to potential investors — known as “the Dragons”. She prides herself on her bluntness and her honesty, but above all else, she loves the mentoring aspect of the show. Minhas says she was surprised by how many products she has seen that didn’t already exist in the market. Her investments are plastered proudly all over her website.

“I do believe it’s important for women to support each other and people in different industries to talk to each other,” she says. “In my industry, there is not a lot of women. It’s about guiding a newcomer, a new entrepreneur through the challenges everyone has — work-life balance, finances, regulation, all those things that are really generic to any business, human resources. That, I feel, is my biggest contribution.”

Minhas starts filming season three of Dragon’s Den at the end of this month.

 

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Women of the Week: Mandy Rennehan

Staying humble and true to yourself after achieving success in the business world may seem like a difficult feat, but CEO of Freshco Mandy Rennehan, makes it look easy. Rennehan leads the retail construction supergiant, an enterprise that has spread across Canada and the United States. Rennehan is one of the top CEOs in Canada; yet, anyone in her presence feels extremely comfortable and important, a rare and welcome way to treat others in the high stakes modern business world.

“Growing up in a small town on the East coast, people are humble and simple. People will give you everything they have because they truly care,” Rennehan says. “I didn’t know I was going to be an entrepreneur, it just picked me and I’m 41 now. When people from home see me and talk to me, they tell me I’m the same way I was when I was 10. I left the east coast with a personality, a smile and a work ethic. I want to treat people like I want to be treated.”

Freshco is a boutique facilities firm that focuses on maintenance, projects and reconstruction. The company has landed some massive clients including Home Depot, Lululemon, Sephora and Apple, among others. “Freshco does everything on the mechanical and cosmetic level to retailers with any form of structure,” Rennehan says. “As soon as they are ready to open a store, we renovate, maintain and come in when there is an emergency. We call ourselves ninjas sometimes. All you see is the beautiful design, and merchandise and Freshco is the company that maintains that look all the time. We are there in the morning, and overnight.”

Rennehan believes that employee happiness is paramount to the success of her company. She handpicks all of her employees with her management team and then dubs them with a nickname. The chosen nickname for a new employee is put on company hoodies and business cards.  “I don’t believe in work-life balance and I think employers put too much strain for people to have two lives,” Rennehan says. “I create an environment that is cool, trendy and comfortable. I believe in the fun and narrowing in on people and bringing out the personality in them. Happy people are productive. We jam up the music and have fridges full of beer.”

Rennehan is also invested in helping others who need support in the trades industry. She launched the Chris Rennehan Scholarship in 2015 that supports people in dire financial circumstances to go to trade school or work for Freshco. “I launched the scholarship because my brother is a lobster fisherman and before he died, we were making a plan to get him into the floor renovation business. His death really affected me and my family. There are so many people who are lost and don’t have the time to go to school. They need to learn something right now because they have bills and families,” Rennehan says. “The scholarship fund sends them to trade school, or sends them to me and we can teach them. People are donating to the fund because they know I am going to do the right thing with it. These people are almost on the brink of mental health issues. My philanthropy and objective long-term to fund the passion of any trade and any individual.”

Due to her amazing work as a Canadian entrepreneur, Rennehan has received a number of awards including being on WXN’s 2015 Canada’s most powerful women: Top 100 award, in which she also received a letter from the Minister of the Status of Women. She also won EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 and was named 20th in Profit’s 2016 W100 list for top female entrepreneurs in Canada. Rennehan is often asked to be the keynote speaker at various events, most recently at the Women with Drive Summit on March 2.

Rennehan is clearly an innovative and forward leader that is taking Freshco to the next level with projected growth across the United States in the next year. The company is a success story, but had its trials as well. In 2010, FreshCo, a grocery chain owned Sobeys, was launched and there was little Rennehan could do about the extremely similar name (only difference on Sobey’s part being the capital ‘C’). The rub? Sobeys was one of Rennehan’s first clients. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that’s the truth. We got our heads kicked in with this, and Sobey’s was my first client,” Rennehan says. “I should’ve trade-marked Freshco and I didn’t. They took my font, my colours and everything. We completely rebranded and with the media attention I get, people are seeing the difference between the two.” Rennehan, true to her positive and upbeat attitude, decided to make a joke out of the issue and even launched a national campaign that including rebranding her trucks to say “FRESHCO, not the grocery store”.

Rennehan is also an avid supporter of women in the trades. Though she has been immersed in a male-dominated industry for the last 20 years, she has never felt discriminated against in her field.  “The trades are still very male-dominated, but it has never bothered me because they know I’m better than them,” Rennehan says. “Despite my sexuality, I’ve never been discriminated against a day in my life. I don’t listen to the garbage and I arm myself with knowledge. I’ve really been a poster child for not being a woman, but being amazing at what I do. Feminism is all fine and well, but just be amazing at what you are and you won’t face that discrimination.”

Rennehan is reading a book called “Spark”, based on a study between physical exercise and how it improves brain function. “Being married to Jane Fonda [a nickname Rennehan calls her partner] for years, I’ve been very involved in exercise,” Rennehan says.”She also loves to golf, play tennis, travel ad is a big wine connoisseur. Her favourite travel destination is Tuscany.

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