Growth 500

Freshco brought fresh talent to an industry that needs it

Facing a shortage of skilled labourers, Mandy Rennehan embraced a different approach to hiring

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies

Mandy Rennehan in her Yarmouth NS studio. (Photograph by Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

“She crumpled it.”

This is how Kat Bailey, a current employee at Freshco Retail Maintenance, describes CEO Mandy Rennehan’s reaction to receiving her resumé in her initial job interview. The dramatic CV-discard wasn’t indicative of Bailey’s admitted lack of trades experience, or Rennehan’s lack of interest in Bailey—quite the contrary, actually. “A lot of companies wouldn’t look at me because I didn’t have an extensive background,” Bailey says. “Mandy just said, ‘I want to know who you are. Tell me.’”

Many in the notoriously hardscrabble world of construction might balk at Rennehan’s compassionate emphasis on soft skills, like authenticity and employee EQ, but they definitely wouldn’t balk at the success that approach has afforded her. Freshco (“not the grocery store!”, per company email signatures) has won big-name retail clients across Canada and down the Eastern American seaboard—Apple, Banana Republic, Nike and Sephora, to name a few. It has more than 200 trade partners, between $20 million and $50 million in annual revenue and a five-year growth rate of 224% (enough to earn the business the No. 299 spot on the 2018 Growth 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies), Rennehan’s self-described “band of misfits” are leading players in the retail-construction industry.

“People ask why we’re proprietary in this space,” says Rennehan. “It’s because we do everything a retailer will need once they open their doors.” Rather than specializing in the base-building of stores, Freshco is, in Rennehan’s words, “the plastic surgeon of retail,” looking after a chain’s year-round maintenance, handling season in-store installations and stick-handling their “operational refreshes” around the three- to five-year mark when “things start to look tired.”

It’s by nature a labour-intensive business, and with Canada on track to experience a shortage in excess of one million skilled workers by 2020, Rennehan’s relationship-based model of talent acquisition and retention—Bailey says almost all the employees “are friends”—is certainly one to dog-ear. “It’s also an intentional counterpoint to the dirty job perception of blue-collar work.”

“If you asked every manufacturing CEO what keeps them up at night, they’d probably say the same thing: they don’t have enough people on the ground—and it’s hurting the economy,” says Rennehan, who attributes this dearth of talent to an insidious, long-held stigma. “There’s always been a career hierarchy, with academics and white-collar professionals at the top,” she says. “I don’t [buy into] that s–t. There is an absolute misconception behind what a blue-collar person is about. I’ve seen 19-year-olds fix a cantilever at a 90-degree angle hanging off the side of a building. A lot of physics and math go into that.”

If you’re wondering how Rennehan came to adopt the moniker of “Blue Collar CEO”—wearing Armani suits and driving a Land Rover some days, and sporting hoodies and debunking “dirty job” stereotypes on others—her origin story might help.

Born in Yarmouth, N.S., to a lobster fisherman dad and homemaker mother, Rennehan showed early signs of an entrepreneurial spirit. “At 10 years old, I was foraging for bait and selling it to local fishermen for profit,” she waxes. “I always enjoyed working with wood, and would offer to work for others for free to improve my skills.”

At 18, she began cutting her teeth at construction sites around Halifax, an experience that she says entrenched her belief in valuing a worker’s merit over prestige. “These guys were segregated from the day-to-day community; some felt like they were ‘just’ a carpenter or a tradesperson. But they didn’t see that I was a woman, and they didn’t see that I was gay. They saw that I was a powerhouse.” By 19, she had left Nova Scotia “with a dirty hockey bag and a dream” to found Freshco, keeping the struggles of her early coworkers front of mind: “The difference between someone back then, and someone today is that, at Freshco, we give people a purpose, a life. People who work for us are proud.”

So how exactly does Rennehan fill her roster of 350-odd “misfits”?

First off, Rennehan’s hiring process is one she says explicitly favours quality over quantity. “Freshco could be three times the size it is now, but I chose to hire minimally,” she explains. “It’s important to me that my brand and culture never strays from how I wanted it to be in the beginning.” She seeks out loyal people, audacious people, people she just instinctively likes. “Anyone who calls the office is getting another segment of me,” she says. “That’s what’s shown [our consistency] to the Fortune 500s we work with.”

Because women continue to have low representation in the skilled trade sector—in 2012, they held fewer than 12% of all construction jobs—having a mixed gender talent roster is also a priority for Rennehan. In fact, most of her staff are women.

Freshco’s interview process puts similar stock in Rennehan’s intuition. Prospective employees are asked about the construction projects they would do for money and for love, what they’d do to make Freshco better (and vice versa) and the one person they’d work alongside in their dreams. Resumés are occasionally crumpled. “The soft skills are something that’s made me what I am today,” Rennehan explains. “I have no post-secondary education. I didn’t have mentors. But when someone walks into your energy field, you have to ask whether or not you want to keep them there.”

Lastly, and unsurprisingly, Rennehan puts a premium on employee wellbeing: The office boasts standing desks and Ping-Pong tables for recreation. (“Sitting on your ass is going to take a part of your life away and I don’t want to be responsible for that,” she says.) New hires receive personalized caricatures, nicknames and a mentor. Employees are encouraged to engage in philanthropic projects—a business bent important to Rennehan, who funnels Freshco resources into supporting partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House and the Chris Rennehan Foundation, named after her late brother, which supports young women in the trades.

If you’re worried that Freshco’s emphasis on intangibles might come at the expense of technical development, think again: The company’s happy handypeople are the first in Canada to use a construction exoskeleton, a quasi-cyborg-like form of wearable equipment that allows users to lift 360 lb. on the job with relative ease. Rennehan says the exoskeleton cuts time costs on projects by 27%, reduces injury rates, and makes trade work accessible to workers of differing body size and strength. “A human developed [the exoskeleton], a human can maintain it, and they, in tandem, will work together,” Rennehan explains.

Such efforts don’t come without a cost; Rennehan says her bottom line is 10 to 12% less than industry standard. She sees the gap as an investment “back into my people and their longevity, happiness and personal development.” And there is a productivity payoff to all that investment in human capital: Rennehan insists that what takes other construction teams eight hours will take hers four. Her reasoning, of course, is full of feeling: “When you’re happy and your mind is creative and your heart is attached, the most incredible projects happen. And we have a lot of damn fun doing them.”