How does a young, hardworking Maritimer become one of Canada’s most powerful entrepreneurs? By turning a lifelong passion and her unique personality into a brand, and building a business around it.
By Marie Moore
On the wall in her office, you will find Mandy Rennehan’s slogan: Energy is everything.
It’s fitting. The first thing you will notice when you meet Mandy is that she exudes positive energy, the kind that is instantly uplifting, and capable of igniting potential in larger doses. Spend some more time with her, and you’ll also pick up on a common theme for the metaphors she likes to drop into conversation: they all relate to building. It’s telling of her lifelong passion, and adult profession — as the founder and CEO of Freshco, Mandy oversees one of Canada’s most successful retail construction companies.
In business for over twenty years, Freshco provides maintenance, project, and reconstruction services across the country and in the eastern United States, with a client list that includes retail giants like Apple, The Gap, Home Depot, Nike, and Lululemon. And at the core of that success? Mandy’s authentic combination of positivity, passion, knowledge, and transparency — personality traits that have defined the culture of her company.
“People underestimate the power of personality,” says Mandy. “I’m living proof that you can leave home with ambition and a dirty hockey bag full of clothes, and be where I am today by just being consistent.”
For Mandy, home is Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The daughter of a lobster fisherman and a
homemaker, she and her three brothers — two older, one twin — didn’t grow up with much. But while her humble beginnings were challenging, they played a big role in her success later in life.
“People underestimate the power of personality. I’m living proof that you can leave home with ambition and a dirty hockey bag full of clothes, and be where I am today by just being consistent.”
“What it does is creates a yearning and a desire to be more, because of the hurt that it created,” Mandy explains. “It was constantly a very stressful situation. I knew that I wanted more for my life, and that I wanted to help my parents to never worry again. It really was the stimulus behind what kickstarted my mind into the entrepreneurial train.”
Mandy was on that track early in life. By the age of ten, she was foraging for bait and selling it to the local fishermen for profit. “I soon became known as the ‘local fish broker,’” she recalls. At the same time, her passion for structure and wood were blossoming. Her idea of fun involved venturing into the woods to build log cabins. She leveraged her athletic ability to get her first construction crew, promising the boys she’d play on their teams if they showed up after school to help her.
Her first real opportunity in the trades came at the age of 18, when Mandy was offered the chance to join a crew on a floor restoration for one of the wealthiest families in Halifax. She was so interested in learning, she took a week off from her regular job to volunteer for the builder. Her enthusiasm and work ethic quickly set her apart.
“Half of the guys that were on the job weren’t showing up, or were showing up hungover,” Mandy explains. The owner asked if she would take over, and despite some nerves, she said yes, requested his credit card, and hired her own crew from her hometown of Yarmouth. Mandy and her team completed the job three days early, impressing the owner so much that he paid her double the promised amount.
It was the definition of a big break. “My name spread from them like wildfire. I couldn’t keep up. At 21 years of age in Halifax, I was doing a half a million dollars worth of business — that was a lot of money for a kid that left home with a stinky hockey bag and a smile.”
She soon identified an opportunity in the maintenance and retail facility field, and set about learning everything that there was to know “under that roof and inside those four walls.” After a full day on the job, she would spend her nights working for free at various companies — plumbing, electrical, HVAC — so she could learn the trade, and offer more services to clients. To get new clients on board, who were often skeptical of a young woman with no formal education, she would work for free for one week to prove that she was “not only serious, but better than anybody else.” They only had to pay her if she did the job to 100% satisfaction — and she was paid every time.
“We’re showing people that ambition and personality and diversity is a function of life that’s been missing in business for a long, long time.”
By the age of 23, she was expanding outside of the Maritimes — prompted by a request from a big retailer in Toronto — but Mandy never allowed the growth to change how her business was run or the service it delivered. With its head office now in Oakville, Freshco officially markets itself as “The Fun Company,” which not only points to their culture, but also how they differentiate from the competition, and a key ingredient to their success.
Mandy has created and maintained the culture not only through her own authentic leadership, but also through careful hiring practices. “First and foremost, we handpick every person at Freshco. There have been people that have come to my door, and been in interviews, that truly have the skillset, but their personality will never work inside the culture. For that reason, they don’t get the job. If you’ve got personality and ambition, and half that resume, we teach the rest.
She also stresses that fitting in with the Freshco family doesn’t mean she’s looking for clones (in fact, she proudly refers to them as misfits). Encouraging each individual to be who they are and to think differently has led to a widely diverse staff, one that’s 60% female — a figure that’s unheard of in the construction industry. This has not only helped the bottom line, it benefits her workers. “I see that the diversity has helped my people grow. They’ve learned about other people, and their challenges, and how it has made them stronger.”
With their unique model for success, Mandy visualizes Freshco not only changing people’s view of the construction and maintenance industry globally, but also influencing businesses outside of the field. “We can have fun and go to work every day, in any industry,” she says. “We’re showing people that ambition and personality and diversity is a function of life that’s been missing in business for a long, long time.”
And her vision for herself? At 42, Mandy is channeling energy towards philanthropy, mentorship, and sharing a particular gift: helping people find the confidence in themselves to be what they truly want to be. And while she recognizes her own story can often serve as inspiration, she advises women to find their own path. “Each individual has their own blueprint which makes them absolutely a rarity in the world. So I don’t profess for anybody to be me. I want them to be them, in the fullest conception of what that means.”
That means opening yourself up to your true potential, and moving definitively towards your innate architecture, as Mandy puts it. And of course, it requires some positive energy — especially for women.
“I think there’s a lot of women that are listening very intently to a lot of negativity that’s circling — whether it be over the internet, social media, whatever — and I’m asking women to realize that negativity can kill your potential very quickly. I do not listen to the negativity, because I know that it’s empty weight, and it has no place in my life. And for what my mandate is as a CEO, and as a partner, and a friend, and a family member, I know that my power is behind positivity.”