Business

LIVIN’ LARGE SELLIN’ SUDS

The siblings behind a runaway Calgary booze empire know that in the brewski biz, image is everything

JOHN INTINI August 15 2005
Business

LIVIN’ LARGE SELLIN’ SUDS

The siblings behind a runaway Calgary booze empire know that in the brewski biz, image is everything

JOHN INTINI August 15 2005

LIVIN’ LARGE SELLIN’ SUDS

Business

The siblings behind a runaway Calgary booze empire know that in the brewski biz, image is everything

JOHN INTINI

RAVINDER MINHAS climbs down from his mammoth Hummer H1 and hurries toward the front door of one of Calgary’s finest car dealerships. “Get your chequebook out,” he yells, disappearing inside. His older sister, Manjit, trails a few steps behind. “Let me just grab a pen,” she says, rolling her eyes.

About a dozen cars—most are cherry red and midnight black Ferraris—fill the showroom floor. Ravinder leans over the rope dividing man and machine and stops just short of touching the vehicles, fearful he may smudge their perfectly polished finishes. He nearly

jumps out of his skin at the sight of a 2004 Ferrari 360 Spider. Price tag: $269,000. “I should really just buy him a T-shirt,” whispers Manjit, 25, well out of earshot.

After about 20 minutes of gawking at the incomprehensible knots of chrome and steel under the hood, Ravinder heads for home, somewhat reluctantly. He’s just window-shopping today. “I test drove one last summer,” says Ravinder, 23. “But it’s just too much. Too showy.” This from a guy who’s squeezing a 10,000-lb. tank through Calgary’s downtown streets.

Meet Canada’s youngest beer barons —the brother-sister team behind an alcohol empire that raked in $50 million in total revenue last year. In Alberta alone, they sold nearly four million 12-packs of their frat-boy-priced beer and sales are up this year by more than 50 per cent. Not bad for a couple of petroleum engineering grads who just happen to find booze way more fun than oil. Even better considering they still live at home with mom and dad. But while it’s been a joy ride so far, the market for cheap suds is filling up with competition. And the long, expensive battle they’ve waged to break into Ontario suggests the toughest challenges are still ahead.

A BABY PHOTO hanging in the family’s basement captures Ravinder with his tiny two-year-old hands wrapped around a stubby bottle of Molson Canadian. While still in diapers, he was often caught stealing a sip from his dad’s beer (in fact, Moni Minhas stopped drinking for a couple of years to keep his young son away from the bottle). That’s just one of the many ways Ravinder and his sister seemed fated for the booze business. Raised by parents who own three liquor stores, Manjit and Ravinder were barely legal when they started Mountain Crest Liquors Inc., in 1999. “We went to a bank for a loan and they told us there was no way they’d give us any money unless our parents co-signed,” recalls Ravinder. “Our egos were way too big for that, so we made it work with the $10,000 we had saved.” They inked a deal with a distillery in Kentucky to bottle tequila and undercut their competitors’ prices. Thirsty for more, they set their sights on Canada’s beer industry. They found a brewmaster in Chicago, and created a beer with Canadian ingredients so cheaply, they’ve been able to sell it for about $1 a can. That’s how Mountain Crest Brewing Co. was born.

While Ravinder is the hard-nosed negotiator (a.k.a. big talker) and “official beer

WHILE he was still

in diapers, Ravinder was often caught by his parents stealing a sip from his dad’s beer

taster,” Manjit, who rarely drinks, is the voice of reason. She playfully scolds her brother whenever he talks about frivolously spending money. In fact, spend any time with the siblings and it’s easy to mistake them for a married couple. Or maybe a couple of college buddies still soaking in the benefits of sudden business success.

“I PIMPED MY RIDE,” laughs Ravinder, pointing out the toys he added to trick out his Hummer, including a Sony PlayStation, a TV screen and a Clarion stereo. “It came with pleather seats,” he scoffs. Now Mountain Crest Hummer and the company slogan, Damn Good Beer!, are stitched into the leather headrests. The outside, emblazoned with the Mountain Crest Classic Lager logo, attracts plenty of attention, which is how Ravinder likes it. When he’s unable to immediately find a spot in a strip-mall parking lot during lunch hour, he climbs the curb, parking his beast on wheels on the grass in front of a restaurant. He flashes a mischievous grin. Manjit just shakes her head.

Ravinder’s suit jacket looks about two sizes too big for his six-foot, two-inch frame, leaving the impression that he raids his dad’s closet. Turns out, it has more to do with Ravinder’s recent workout regimen. “I’ve lost 65 pounds in the past 18 months and I’m not done yet,” he says. “I needed to get in better shape, and the excuse of not having enough time because of work was bullshit. So I cut out TV, giving myself a couple of hours a day to hit the gym. It’s turned into an addiction.”

So are the 80-hour work weeks. Ravinder runs his business—focused mainly on Alberta and the U.S.—from his parent’s mainfloor den. Manjit operates the companies responsible for the newer markets, Ontario

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and Manitoba, from the basement. It seems this set up makes everyone happy—the Minhases like having the kids close by until they get married, as is common in Indo-Canadian families. And the kids get to focus on business without worrying about mundane stuff like cooking and doing laundry. It’s not like they don’t show their appreciation, however: they just bought mom a new Lexus RX330 for her 50th birthday.

Working from home is just one way the siblings have tried to keep the company as unpretentious as possible. None of their 30 employees has an MBA. In fact, one of the general managers doesn’t even have a highschool diploma. The thought of cashing in by taking the company public isn’t even worth entertaining. “I don’t want to answer to anyone,” says Ravinder. ‘T don’t want to be accountable to shareholders. I just want to be accountable to myself.”

While visiting a downtown Calgary liquor store, Manjit and Ravinder shake hands with the shopkeeper before straightening out their products on the shelves and making sure that all of their labels are clearly visible. Later, during dinner at a Mexican restaurant, Manjit points out that our strawberry margaritas are made with their Conquistador Gold Tequila and Marco Polo Triple Sec. (They have 90 different brands of liquor in their portfolio, and have also dabbled in the wine biz, importing a short list from Germany and France.)

Beer, of course, is the quaff du jour. And Ontario is the promised land, where 36 per cent of beer in Canada is consumed. Manjit is desperate for a piece of that action and has been battling for more than two years to get her Lakeshore Creek in stores. Problem is, the Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario isn’t yet satisfied with her application. “The main outstanding issue is that we don’t know the name of their manufacturer,” says Ab Campion, spokesperson for the AGCO. “Everything else, generally speaking, has been dealt with. It’s in their hands.”

Red tape isn’t the only problem they’ve faced. In March the Ontario Provincial Police investigated Manjit for alleged money laundering. “The O.P.P. sent me a four-page letter asking for information about my bank accounts, everyone I deal with, and all my contracts,” says Manjit. “They told me they were looking into organized crime ties. It was ridiculous. After half an hour into a meeting with a detective, she threw it out.”

The Ontario campaign has been a costly effort—$350,000 in legal, administrative and advertising expenses so far—and a stark lesson in how hard it can be to graduate from spunky upstart to legitimate competitor. “I consider that the expense of doing business in Ontario,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’ll get that money back— and a lot more—in the long run. I will put everything on the line for 10 per cent of

THEY’RE handing

out half-a-million bags of potato chips with their slogan, Damn Good Beer!, splashed on the front

Ontario. I don’t care what it costs.”

Ten per cent is the magic number in every market—except Alberta, where Ravinder is confident he can secure a whopping 15-percent share. And while Ontario has proven problematic, business is expanding. This fall Manjit plans to have her beer on shelves in Saskatchewan. And she hopes to be selling suds in B.C. and Quebec by as early as next year.

To keep up with the big boys and their deep pockets, the Minhases have had to find unique ways of capturing consumers’

attention. Last year they gave away six PT Cruisers with one-year leases. And by the end of this summer, they’ll have shelled out halfa-million bags of potato chips—with Damn Good Beer! splashed on the front of the packages. “Manufacturing is the easy part,” says Manjit. “This is the age of marketing.”

Their primary consumer, without a doubt, is the budget-conscious beer drinker. And like every other “value beer,” the Minhas’s various brands are commonly trashed on Internet beer sites. On ratebeer.com, a Calgary-based beer drinker offers up this assessment: “Already drunk? Want to get drunker for the lowest price possible? Clear Creek Ice is the beer for you! No head, little carbonation, watery palate with a distinct rubbing alcohol and slight malt aftertaste. Perfect for use in your favourite beer bong.”

That may not be the kind of ringing endorsement they were looking for, but the siblings have tough enough skin to shake off the critics. Concealing their youthful enthusiasm though, is not so easy. “Earlier today we got all excited when we drove by a homeless guy on the street who was collecting cans and saw that he had two of our Clear Creek Ice cans in his bag,” laughs Manjit. “It was the same feeling we get when we see a crushed can on the ground outside of a football game,” says Ravinder without a hint of irony. “It’s one of those you-know-you’ve-madeit-when moments.” Hey—whatever it takes to pay for the Ferrari. [¡’ll