Mandy Rennehan, CEO of construction company Freshco, is on a mission to make the trades more relatable.
Known as the blue-collar CEO, she's also a speaker, mentor, advocate, and soon-to-be HGTV host.
By Sarah Kelsey
Mandy Rennehan — the fast-talking, down-to-earth CEO of Freshco, a retail maintenance and construction company that counts organizations like the Gap and Tesla as clients — is on a mission.
“We devalue the trades,” she says, of the way society looks down on blue collar workers — a group that includes everyone from estheticians to electricians. “We don’t think about the people who design and build all of the things we rely on. It’s now about making the trades relatable.”
Mandy, who’s called Bear by just about everyone who knows her, is hoping to fuel this revolution by bringing a little of her blue collar perspective to the white collar world. Her efforts have included everything from inspirational speaking (with viral TEDxTalks), providing scholarships and mentorship for women in trades, partnering with Barbie’s You Can Be Anything Mentorship Program, and an HGTV series called Trading Up that will air in 2022. (The show will follow her as she trains apprentices while renovating three unique properties in her hometown of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.)
“It will give me a bigger platform to share my message,” she says.
Growing up with financial struggles, Mandy hightailed it out of Yarmouth with “only a hockey bag and personality” after high school, taking odd jobs that played to her physical strength on dairy and horse farms. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t be academic or go to school, I just didn’t want to,” she says.
Instead, Mandy spent her spare time cold-calling construction companies asking if she could pitch in on projects. “I laid stones, concrete, electrical, and pulled wire for weeks so I could understand the foundation of everything,” she says.
“If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”
Luck struck when she landed a gig with a flooring company and was tasked with developing a customized cherrywood for a wealthy client in Halifax. The son appreciated her craftsmanship and work ethic — and was vocal about it.
“From that time, my name spread through the Maritimes like a bad fart,” she jokes. “There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know about the young woman from Yarmouth who was making waves in construction.” The then 19-year-old Mandy founded Freshco, which has since grown to service Fortune 500 clients across Canada and the Eastern United States.
“I am a pilot project that went really well,” she says, adding how important it is to share her own story. “If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”
Mandy points to the issue of how trade work is viewed versus earning a university degree. In her experience in the industry, blue collar parents push their kids to go to university thinking it will insulate them from the discrimination they faced, while white collar parents do the same because they think non-corporate jobs aren’t prestigious enough for their kids.
The reality, though, is that the world of construction and trades is not only rewarding — it is beginning to lead the way with innovative and future-proof technologies.
“You need more math and physics to do most of the things you need to do in trades than you need for a desk job. But the industry isn’t being sold that way,” explains Mandy.
Case in point: “You know those cabinets you dream about — the cabinets you see in magazines? Years ago we had to physically train someone about the art of spraying cabinets. Today, we put them in a spraying simulator. That simulator is all AI that’s teaching people how to do things using tech. We’re no longer wasting wood or resources,” she says. “And then we have exoskeleton suits that allow contractors to demo without putting wear and tear on their bodies.”
“We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”
Software has also changed the game. A general contractor can now work from home and watch what’s happening on site through cameras. Programs even allow teams to do scans of an area so crews can see what’s behind a home’s walls.
“What this is doing is attracting people with a tech background to trades,” says Mandy. “We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”
The challenge then is getting people’s viewpoints to catch up to the way the industry is evolving. “We’re still missing the people with the knowledge of modalities for building techniques. We don’t have enough people that have enough wisdom to do certain things. And if we don’t start training more people in building modalities or making them aware of the career possibilities, we’re all going to be sitting here struggling to find people to build things.”
Which is why she’s extolling the virtues of working in the trades for everyone.
“This industry was made for both genders,” she says — an assertion she’s supported not only through hiring and training women in her own company, but also by providing inspiration, mentorship, and financial aid to girls and women interested in trades. “But I’m not just after your daughter and those in junior high school. I’m after people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who say ‘I want to work with my hands. I want to build stuff. I want to build and maintain a new Canada.’”
All people have to do is take a cue from Mandy’s career to see how wildly successful and fulfilling life outside the white-collar world can be.
“I’m bringing the sexy back to the trade industry,” she jokes, “and I’m making and inspiring new leaders and general contractors who see the absolute gratifying fun and kick-ass part of the trade industry. The opportunities are endless.”