Talking a blue streak: Mandy Rennehan is CEO of the Year 2019

How a “ballsy little bugger” with no post-secondary training transformed herself into an international retail-reno maven—and Atlantic Business Magazine’s 2019 CEO of the Year

Let’s start with Five Moments from the extraordinary, label-defying life and times of Mandy Rennehan. She, of course, is the entrepreneur-founder and CEO of Freshco, the Nova Scotia-conceived, privately-owned retail maintenance, projects and reconstruction company she grew from literally nothing but the sweat on her back and the passion in her heart to a $50–100-million-a-year business from sea to shining Canadian sea, and which she is now in the process of expanding internationally down to the southernmost end of the east coast of the United States. As if that’s not enough, Mandy—known as “Bear” to her friends and the “Blue-Collar CEO” (trademarked) to her fans—is also an uncensored, in-demand public speaker who celebrates and promotes the role of skilled trades in the economy while “redefining the collar blue” (also trademarked).

To all of that, let us now add—drumroll, please—Atlantic Business Magazine’s CEO of the Year for 2019.

OK, now back to those Five Moments.

First Moment. It was 1985. Mandy was just 10, the tomboy (“I didn’t have a hope in hell of being feminine”) daughter of a lobster fisherman in Chegoggin, a spit of a place near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Mandy would rather hang out at the wharf with her father than sit in a stuffy classroom. While she could be talkative, she also listened and learned—traits that would become un-trademarked trademarks of her adult business style—while the fishermen shot the breeze. She listened while they waxed poetic about the kiack, a species of fish better known in other places as the gaspereau or alewife. The lobsters “loved” those fish, the fishermen would tell each other; they only wished they could find more of them to bait their traps.

So Mandy learned, discovered a river near Blueberry Hill where the kiack swam upstream to a freshwater lake so they could lay their eggs. And then Mandy did another very Mandy-thing. She was an athlete—that one girl pre-pubescent boys wanted on their team for games or events. So she told the boys that, if they would agree to sneak out of their houses at night (“and potentially get in trouble”) to help her “dip these kiacks,” collect them in bait bags and load them on her father’s truck before morning, she would not only give them a 20 per cent cut of whatever she earned but she would also let them pick her for their team.

Done deal.

Some might call that manipulation, admits Mandy, “and I very nicely say this is not manipulation. It’s persuasion because for me it’s always been about the fact that I’m going to persuade you into a place that’s going to work out, first of all, for you.”

And then, of course, for her.

Oh, and there’s this. And it’s important too. Mandy used her share of her fish-broker profits to buy tools. Tools? A 10-year-old? “I’ve always had a thing for construction.” Later, she promised the boys she would play on their baseball team, but “you gotta help me build a log cabin.”

Second Moment, this one from 1993. She was 18 now, “out” to her parents as a gay woman (“there were tears,” but acceptance too), freshly graduated from a high school whose graduation ceremony she cared so little about she didn’t even bother to attend. She could have applied herself to academics, she says, and probably done well, “but I just didn’t want to. I didn’t see the value of it.” She knew she wanted to be in business for herself, knew she wanted that business to have something to do with construction, knew “I didn’t have the time or money to go to school.” So she packed up her dirty hockey bag and left town. “My parents didn’t even know I was gone for three weeks.”

When Mandy wasn’t working 24/7 to survive—training horses, looking after a dairy farm—she was cold-calling contractors in Halifax, offering to work for free at night just for the experience. Which is how she ended up as the untrained, unpaid apprentice—the only show on a no-show construction crew—on the third day of a major renovation project at the home of “one of Halifax’s wealthiest families.”

In desperation, the son of the owner—who was himself scheduled to leave town with his wife the next day to join his parents for two weeks in the Bahamas—asked Mandy: “Can you do this job?”

“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do this job,’ and I’m dying because I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve only been on the job for three days.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna need your credit card.”

She went home to Yarmouth, gathered “a bunch of guys,” hurried back to Halifax and got to work. “I didn’t sleep for two weeks.”

Part of the job involved sanding and refinishing 5,000 square feet of exotic Brazilian cherry floors. Specialized stuff. “I was trying these different applications, teaching myself how to do it right.” She completed the job three days early. The man was so impressed with the work she’d done, there was a tear in his eye. “And I can tell you, definitely, there were tears in my eyes too,” Mandy allows. She had been so desperate for the opportunity and knew so little about how to price a job, she had dramatically underestimated what the project would cost her to complete.

The man understood that too. “Mandy,” he said with admiration. “I’m going to pay you double.”

Today, Mandy marvels. “He allowed me to be the ballsy little bugger I was… That was something that really happens once in a lifetime.”

Mandy Rennehan made the most of her “once.” She was suddenly in business for herself. The wealthy, well-connected family who’d only hired her out of desperation now told their friends about “this girl” who’d done this amazing job for them, “and the next thing I know, Alliance Atlantis was a client of mine, Canada Post, Irving Oil, and so it just really blossomed from there. They basically built my business behind my back.”

Which brings us to Moment Number Three. She was now all of 20 and the president of her own company, Freshco, which billed itself as a “full-service, reconstruction and retail maintenance provider.” She’d landed a small contract updating mall outlets “for one of the top global retail brands” at the Halifax Shopping Centre and Mic Mac Mall. It was a national cookie-cutter contract with other small companies like hers hired across the country to do essentially the same work in their local malls, and involved doing the work overnight while the store was closed.

“I remember going into the store on Sunday night with two of my guys and [the store’s local manager] saying, ‘So, we’re gonna shut off this part for the next two weeks, so you can do the job.’ And I looked at her and went, ‘Two weeks? I’m gonna have this done in two nights.’” And she did.

A few days later, she got a call from the company’s head office in Toronto. “Who the hell are you?” the person at the other end of the line demanded. “We rolled this project out across the country and we haven’t had one contractor able to take this on in under two weeks.”

“Well, I don’t know what they’re smoking,” Mandy replied, “but it’s done. And it’s perfect.”

The man paused. “I’m well aware,” he said drily. “Can you come to Toronto? We have other jobs across the country we’d like you to take over.”

And so she did. Freshco became what is known as an “operational refresh operator,” which means it doesn’t build a company’s original store—“that’s boring to me and nothing I’ve ever been interested in”—but takes care of all “the good stuff”—ongoing maintenance, repairs and renovations once the original store or building is in place. Mandy sees herself as the “plastic surgeon of retail.” After three-to five years, a company typically decides it needs a major refresh, even a facelift. Who better to turn to than the company that knows the space best? Freshco. “We come in, kind of like ninjas in in the middle of the night, and we basically completely remodel that store over a one-to-two-month period.” The most important thing for the retailer, Mandy discovered, was that the stores continue to operate while they’re being remodeled. “We could do that.”

As a result, her client list soon included an alphabet soup of Canadian head offices of Fortune 500 players—Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware, Apple, Banana Republic, Home Depot, Lululemon, Nike, Sephora, Starbucks, Tiffany & Co.

Freshco flourished.

Leading us to Moment Four.

Mandy was now 23. Twenty-three, without even a diploma beyond high school. And she got invited to San Fransisco to the head office of The Gap, the global apparel giant, to pitch them on a contract for their stores. Her meeting was slated for seven minutes. It lasted a little longer than that, but she walked out at the end with a $4-million contract to service all their stores in Canada. “The man who hired me,” Mandy later told the Financial Post, “told me that I had changed his life by walking into his office, offering a solution and an ambition and passion like something he’d never seen.”

Flash forward another decade to 2008. Mandy is still just 33; Freshco has, by now, firmly established itself as one of Canada’s pre-eminent, one-stop-shopping, retail facilities contractors. And then—smack—the U.S. mortgage crisis suddenly smashed into the world economy, quickly metastasized into a global financial mess and sent the construction business hurtling down past hell in a greased handcart…

Time to batten down the hatches, ride out the meltdown and hope there will be better days ahead, someday.

Uh, no… Not Mandy.

Moment Number Five.

“When the ass fell out of the U.S. market into 2007, 2008 I knew that that was my chance to get into the market,” Mandy explains simply. Although many companies were pulling back on their in-house maintenance operations, she understood that didn’t mean they still didn’t need the work done. They simply needed to offload the work to an outside contractor. The problem, she realized quickly, was that most U.S. companies offering those services had already priced themselves out of the market. Mandy moved in. “Other people saw despair. I saw absolute opportunity.” In 2008, she expanded her business into New England. “It was the best year I ever had.” Freshco then pushed into Pennsylvania. Today, “we’re headed down to the Carolinas, Illinois. And our goal is to make it all the way down to Florida in the next two years.”

Five Moments. So now you know all you need to know about Mandy Rennehan, Atlantic Business Magazine’s CEO of the Year. Case closed.

Not even close.

When I’d telephoned Mandy Rennehan at the company’s head office in Oakville, O.N., for our pre-arranged interview, I was greeted with a not-your-usual pre-recorded message from a chirpy male voice.

“Hello, there,” it began. “Thanks for calling Freshco, not the grocery store. It seems someone’s slacking on the phone lines but not to worry. You’ve reached Canada’s most amazing, trendy and fun maintenance and retail construction specialist.” The Voice then proceeded through the standard series of phone tag prompts, each with his own delicious twists. “If you know the extension of the superstar you’d like to reach, feel free to cut me off by dialing their extension now… If you’re still not sure, not to worry. Stay on the line and our gatekeeper will be with you shortly. Won’t you, Trev?”

Insert voice of Trev: “I guess.”

We’ll come back to Trev.

I dialed Mandy’s extension.

“Mr. Kimber, how are you, my sweet?” She was even more cheery than the Voice.

“I’m very well thank you.”

“Good, good. Happy Friday!”

“Is this how you greet everybody every day?” I wondered.

“Sweetie,” she deadpanned back. “This is me every day. I wake up like this and I haven’t had caffeine in over four years.”

She isn’t really like this all the time. She suffers from depression—and is “out” about that too. “I’ve fought depression my whole life,” she told You Inc. in 2018. “I’ve got a big personality, and a lot of people will go, ‘You suffer from depression?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah.’ You have to realize I give a lot of people my energy, which allows them to find themselves. After that energy goes out, I’m depleted. I’m aware as I’ve gotten older, that if I don’t fill up that tank, I’m not able to keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

So, five or six times a year for a week at a time, she deliberately unplugs from the world.

Although her escapes are partly designed for self-protection—“people I have a lot of respect for have said, ‘Mandy, you’ve got to protect yourself [from] the energy vampires’”—she also turns those mental health breaks into a positive, a way to become even more effective at her job. “What I’m seeing from a performance perspective, Stephen, is that if I don’t do that for my mind and my body, then I absolutely am not hitting my potential. So that’s been something that has walked into my life over the age of 40.” She is, only now, closing in on 44.

Mandy Rennehan is—not to put too fine a point on it—a driven, workaholic over-achiever.

But driven to accomplish what? And why? If you’d asked her that question back around Moment Two, the answer would almost certainly have had to do with family. Growing up in a hardscrabble fishing family of six where survival depended on the success of the fishing season, there were times when there was not enough money to put food on the table. And there was “a lot of stress in my house.” While her father was outgoing, he could also be quick-tempered. By contrast, “my mom was quiet and sweet and loving, but [the financial issues] really played a toll on their relationship. So, many times, I would see her just very much relinquish herself to… not depression, but she just wasn’t a happy person.”

As Mandy became more and more successful, she determined to lift those burdens from her parents. She provided her father with an exit from lobster fishing “because he had been in the stern of a boat well beyond what any physical human being should at 57 years old.”

Ironically, that financial freedom gave her parents a second chance to consider their own relationship “and they decided they shouldn’t be together.” After the divorce, “I took mom under my wing and really, truly made her into the woman I knew she longed to be.” Mandy got her a credit card, helped her open a bank account, enabled her to rent an apartment in her own name. “When I watch her enter a room today, Stephen, you know what—she has energy. She has light and she really, truly is just one of the most wonderful human beings in the world.” Within the company, Mandy’s mother has taken on “a lot of charity things I don’t have time to do, and that has really been wonderful for my heart.”

Her father, meanwhile, “became my right-hand man in Yarmouth.” Freed from being a lobster fisherman just to pay the bills, he morphed into a 71-year-old “you wouldn’t think was a day over 55” with a “redneck” innovative flair of his own. “I saw that entrepreneurial part of his personality and realized I’m not completely an odd duck. [My entrepreneurial] side does come from somewhere.” She says her father, in fact, became “the pioneer” behind the Windmill project.

The Windmill…?

No point in getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s return to Trev, the company “gatekeeper” of Freshco phone-message fame.

More family. Trev is Trevor, Mandy’s twin brother. “Chalk and cheese,” she says. “He hardly talks, and then there’s me…” When their older brother, Chris, died of a heart attack at 38, Trevor, who was especially close to him, went into a deep depression. At the time he was working in the restaurant business in Ottawa and “he just says, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’” So Mandy hired him, at first to work on job sites (“He was useless to be quite frank; he just wanted to look good with a tool belt on”) and then, at her father’s urging, for a job in the head office. “We call him the gatekeeper, because nobody gets past him to me. He greets everybody and it’s been really incredible to watch how the job has become his passion.”

Nepotism? “It’s funny because a lot of people talk about nepotism and family business, [but] my business has never been a family business. I’ve actually integrated my family into parts of my business because they had ‘the gene’ in different areas than I did.”

Bear—aka Mandy Rennehan—and her father Gary, a former lobster fisherman, inspired her first entrepreneurial endeavour: harvesting and selling bait for the traps.

Back when Mandy Rennehan was still a kid, maybe even before she became a child fish-broker, she had a dream. Every day on the way to and from the schoolhouse in Port Maitland, her bus passed an abandoned windmill sitting high on a hill overlooking the Bay of Fundy. The circa-1950 windmill had long since been abandoned for that most coastal Nova Scotian of reasons: there was so much wind the windmill’s blades couldn’t operate safely. Which made the old structure an excellent place for a country kid to sneak around in and dream. Mandy’s dream was that someday she was going to own that property and live in that windmill.

In 2005, she finally bought the windmill, along with its accompanying house, horse barn and land, not to forget—never forget—its spectacular hilltop commanding view in every direction.

Renovating and repurposing the windmill wasn’t easy. Generations of seagulls had made the place their bathroom. “It was full of seagull shit.” First, they had to chicken-wire the windows to convince the birds to go elsewhere and then wait years for the structure’s oak timbers to finally dry out.

The actual project—renovating the old windmill and tarting it up with a new adjoining garage and a 30-by-60-foot great room constructed from local materials, including beach stone in the 40-foot-high fireplace, Douglas fir and even driftwood she’d gathered from the beach—began in 2014 and was complete in eight months. The house is filled with meaningful-to-Mandy furnishings: lobster-fishing-rope-spool end tables her father had saved for her; a vintage leather Kensington cigar couch she bought from Restoration Hardware, one of Freshco’s clients, which she describes as “my baby sookie blanket;” and a poker table where she entertains and plays “a great hand” with friends for local charities.

Renovating her dream home was how she met Dustin DuPrat, which is yet another story. And now, yet another company.

DuPrat was an American-born, Montreal-trained interior designer who’d moved to Yarmouth with his Nova Scotia wife and found a job in a local cabinet shop by the time Mandy showed up to talk about the kitchen cabinets she wanted designed and built for the windmill. “Everyone thought she was a bit crazy,” DuPrat later told East Coast Living, “but, for me, it was great to finally work with someone who shared my taste and ideas.”

They got on well enough they soon joined forces to create RennDuPrat, a design and fabrication company that has since tackled a number of transformative restoration projects in Mandy’s hometown of Yarmouth. They turned a “row of buildings in the poorest part of town” into RennDuPrat’s offices. They took a down-at-the-heels old house, stripped it back to the studs and then “restored all of its character.” In 2015, Mandy even bought Yarmouth’s 19th century granite jail house, even though “I had no idea what I was going to do with it.”

On one level, the RennDuPrat projects are what Mandy calls “passion projects,” personal diversions from her day-to-day that demonstrate to the world what can be done in, and by smart people “outside major city centres.” She wants to showcase her hometown for outsiders. “We need to inspire people to come visit, live here, show them they can have an amazingly rich life,” she wrote in a call-to-arms commentary last year in Atlantic Business Magazine.

More significantly, she wants to instill a sense of pride in the community’s young people, to encourage them to see they really can make a future for themselves in the rural Maritimes. “If you want to learn a trade,” she says, “there is a place for you.”

Or there should be.

In fact, if you were to ask Mandy the driven-to-accomplish-what-and-why question today, she’d probably answer—in more colourful language—changing people’s perceptions about blue-collar work. “I can continue to work just to make money,” she allows, “or I can inspire a change in the entire industry.” Changing perceptions about her industry and, as importantly, supporting women to enter—and make a career of—the trades is the reason she recently created the Blue-Collar Intelligence Foundation.

The Blue-Collar what…? “I’ve been doing some work with the federal government,” she says with a laugh, “and they looked at me: ‘why blue-collar intelligence?’ I said. ‘Well, have you ever heard those two names together?’ ‘As a matter of fact, I haven’t.’ Well, I said, I’m here to tell you that some of the most intelligent people in our country live on this side of the tracks. And I said it’s about damn time we start recognizing that because, without them, you’d have nothing. You’d have no bed. You’d have no house, you’d have no water. You’d have no clothing, you’d have no car, you’d have no transport. You’d have nothing. You’d be standing there with but what God gave you on dirt without the blue-collar industry.”

And yet, she argues, “societal ideology has brainwashed people to believe that white-collar careers are better than blue-collar ones. Our current reality is university graduates who can’t find jobs and well-paying skilled trade jobs sitting empty.”

Mandy Rennehan knows whereof she speaks. Even though she says she’s personally discovered a talent-pool “powerhouse” of women who hadn’t previously had the opportunity to make their mark on the staid, male-dominated construction industry (more than 60 per cent of Freshco’s employees are women), and even though Freshco has assembled a fine, “loveable team of misfit” superstars of all genders and inclusions to take on the retail renovation world, the company last year had to turn down $10-million worth of work because of an ongoing, system-wide shortage of qualified skilled tradespeople.

The shortage is especially acute among women. Just 5.6 per cent of working women in Canada today work in the make-stuff-do-stuff manufacturing industries.

It’s why Mandy so frequently takes her Blue-Collar-CEO show on the road. Using her East Coast humour “as a tool for people to really listen to my story and movement… and change the answer to what you what to be when you grow up,” she moderates panels on how to improve worker recruitment and retention at the Economic Club of Canada, encourages more women to consider blue-collar careers at the first ever Supporting Women in Trades Conference in Halifax, headlines a Jill of all Trades conference for high school students in Ontario, even stars in a “You Can Be a Builder” Barbie video for pre-teens.

“You need somebody who [wears] both collars to bridge” the societal divide between blue and white collars, she says simply. “I am that bridge. I go in and I make big deals in a beautiful suit in a boardroom and then I navigate out onto a jobsite that same night making people better.”

Meet Mandy Rennehan, Blue Collar CEO™.

Meet Mandy Rennehan, Atlantic Business Magazine’s CEO of the Year for 2019.

This story originally appeared in Atlantic Business Magazine. You can subscribe here.

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