Women in Construction: Facing a shortage of skilled labourers, this CEO embraces a different approach to hiring

“She crumpled it.”

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

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.

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.

Continue reading on Canadian Business: https://www.canadianbusiness.com/lists-and-rankings/growth-500/freshco-brought-fresh-talent-to-an-industry-that-needs-it/
Learn more about our Women in Construction networks: www.vicabc.ca/wic

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