Manjit Minhas loves beer. Ales are her favourite, particularly wheat and red. And she knows her stuff: Before launching the brewing operation, she went to “beer school” at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology. Whenever she goes out, she samples what’s on offer, wondering whether she can get that restaurant or bar to switch to her product. It drives her husband crazy. “Can’t you just enjoy it without analyzing everything?” he asks her. “Have water!”

Once you get Manjit talking about beer mouth feel and sweetness levels, her somewhat intimidating demeanour quickly warms up. Over dinner at an upscale Toronto restaurant (she opts for a cosmopolitan, perhaps to avoid beer comparisons), she cheerfully chatters away, her voice sometimes rising into girlish squeals and teen-speak.

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The family has Alberta Premier Ralph Klein to thank for starting them in business. When he privatized the province’s liquor stores, Manjit’s dad, who had just been laid off from Encana, decided to open one. His approach was high volume, low price—really low, as in margins 20 percentage points below those of most competitors. Soon there were three stores, and as teenagers, Manjit and Ravinder worked weekends and summers stocking shelves and sweeping floors.

Manjit was 19 and doing an undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering when she saw an opportunity to start a private label for the stores’ hospitality clients. Using $10,000 from the sale of her car, the siblings launched Mountain Crest Spirits and began setting up a supply chain. At one distillers’ conference, a tablemate offered to help her. “I’m like, I don’t know who this guy is, is he pulling my chain?” she recalls. So she asked her brother to look him up. “He says, ‘Oh my god, talk to him! He runs one of the biggest distilleries in the U.S.!’”

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It was a big break. With the distiller’s help, they pulled together a line of basic bar stock: rum, rye, gin and vodka. Mexico’s sudden shortage of blue agave (the main ingredient in tequila) turned into another stroke of luck, when the siblings secured a supply of tequila before prices skyrocketed. In 1999, abandoning plans for careers in the oilpatch, Manjit and Ravinder took a leap: Instead of just selling to their bar and restaurant clients, they decided to hit the road on evenings and weekends to pitch their spirits to liquor stores around the province.

The siblings don’t look much alike—he’s six-foot-two with the body of a linebacker; she’s a delicate five-foot-four—but they’ve always been uncommonly close. Matt Embry, president of the Minhas subsidiary Spotlight Productions and Ravinder’s best friend, has known the pair since he made their first commercials. “They’re both strong-willed and aggressive in the workplace,” he says. “There are times that they will disagree, but there are not a lot of hard feelings left over.” The Minhases share the ownership of every venture—both of their titles are co-founder and co-owner—and the running of the business: Manjit is the organizational whiz who oversees finance, logistics and much of the marketing; Ravinder is the gregarious pitchman who handles HR, government relations and the sales team.

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In 2002, the pair branched out into beer, confident they could undercut existing value brands with better-quality offerings. The Mountain Crest Classic Lager was Alberta’s entry in the buck-a-beer craze started by Lakeport Brewing Co. in Ontario. They opted for a kind of hybrid vertical integration. Even as they contracted out the brewing, they brought other services in-house to keep costs down. “We couldn’t afford to pay the prices of third-party companies,” says Ravinder, “so we found experts and built teams around them.” Over time, they opened a graphics shop to make labels and point-of-sale materials, a video-production company to produce commercials, a glass manufacturer to make bottles, and even a trucking operation and a construction division (Harvey’s firm falls under the Minhas umbrella).

Creating what amounts to a mini-conglomerate seems an unusual move, adding to management complexity at a time when maintaining growth of the core business is the priority. But Andreas Schotter, a strategy and management professor at Ivey Business School, sees the logic of bringing some functions in-house. Existing service providers may be too focused on the needs of industry mega-players like Labatt and Molson—a problem that disappears when you own the supplier. There’s also added speed and flexibility in areas like graphics and video production. Some of the divisions may even bring in additional profit. Minhas Breweries doesn’t break out numbers for its various revenue streams, but each subsidiary aims for self-sufficiency by serving outside clients. Spotlight Productions, for instance, has produced about 700 hours of TV for broadcasters that include Rogers.

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