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'Where can I start?': How this blue-collar CEO helped transform her Nova Scotia hometown

Blue Collar CEO and Freshco founder Mandy Rennehan
Blue Collar CEO and Freshco founder Mandy Rennehan - Peter Power for Postmedia News files

Yarmouth, N.S., Mayor Pam Mood needed help. Her town, once vibrant and bustling with a downtown full of historic red brick buildings and a rich seafaring past populated by captains, shipbuilders and salt-of-the-Earth souls, wasn’t faring so well in the present.

Main Street looked tired and residents stayed away, particularly after dark, while the south end of town seemed downright down on its luck, a problem the mayor didn’t quite know how to remedy. But as she was pondering her lot seven years ago, the phone rang.

“If you are an East Coast girl, the sea will always call you home, and that’s what happened with Mandy,” Mood said. “I didn’t know Mandy, but she called me up one day and introduced herself and said, ‘You look like you could use some help. Where can I start?’”

Mandy, is Mandy Rennehan, although those who know her, including her employees, refer to her as “Bear.” She gives TED talks, writes books, chortles with delight in conversation and regularly rubs elbows on cross-border business panels with American big shots from Amazon .com Inc. and the like, bringing, as she puts it, a “blue-collar” perspective to white-collar roundtable discussions around such issues as trade and the future of work.

Rennehan’s father, Gary — folks around Yarmouth call him “Ida” — is a retired lobster fisherman. Her mom, Diane, goes by “Momma Bear,” naturally. The couple, since divorced, raised four children. Money was always tight, and their only daughter hightailed it out of Yarmouth the minute she finished high school.

She would thereafter hustle her way from humble beginnings to become chief executive of Freshco Inc., a company she founded at 19. Freshco, not to be confused with the grocery chain, is an on-call, 24/7 retail maintenance and construction project provider.

“We are the dental hygienists and plastic surgeons of retail,” the company’s now 45-year-old founder said.

Rennehan’s clients run the gamut from Nike Inc. to The Gap Inc. to Tesla Inc. If the roof of, say, a Gap outlet needs fixing, or its interior requires a fresh look, Freshco’s employees are on the case. Such contracts reportedly net $50 million to $100 million annually for privately owned Freshco.

Among those employees, incidentally, is Rennehan’s twin brother, Trevor, known as the “Gatekeeper,” since anybody looking to speak with his sister often winds up speaking to him first. Rennehan has another brother, Troy, a.k.a. “Pigeon,” and an older brother, Chris (who passed away), whose feet smelled so bad everyone knew him as “Sludge.”

Rennehan lives in Oakville, Ont., a bit west of Toronto, near her company’s headquarters, but she spends her summers at an 18-acre property outside of Yarmouth. Her vacation home is a refurbished Cape Cod style windmill — in other words, a showstopper — with a view of the Bay of Fundy.

The place is the only hard evidence that suggests the self-styled blue-collar CEO can afford some of the finer things in life, and has the cachet to cold call the mayor of her hometown, with an open-ended offer to do whatever she can to help.

“When I was growing up, Yarmouth was like something out of a New England movie: it had energy, there were shops downtown, beautiful heritage buildings,” Rennehan said. “Sylvester Stallone would anchor his yacht in our harbour. But when I started coming home more, in recent years, everything looked dilapidated.”

Boy, did it ever. Mayor Mood, an RCMP drug squad alum, suggested that if Rennehan was truly interested in helping, she could start in the south end of the town of 7,000.

“I started buying up everything that had history,” Rennehan said of the shopping spree that started seven years ago.

Her purchases have included a trio of abandoned merchant buildings that had become drug dens, an old captain’s house that was falling apart (and is now a stately family home) and a red brick jail built in 1865.

Working with local partners, Rennehan has transformed a waterfront fish hatchery into a boutique/spa. This past September, she gave away the jail after a contest soliciting ideas of what to do with it. The winners plan to convert the building into the Jailhouse Brewery, Bistro and Business Centre.

The drug dens are now chic apartments with a harbour view. The facades of Main Street have been scrubbed, fixed, polished and painted in bright colours, while flower boxes, benches and, most importantly, people have replaced the metaphorical tumbleweeds downtown.

“Sometimes you need a leader to show you what’s possible,” Mood said. “It wasn’t about money with Mandy, it was about telling people, “We are a seaside town — this is where the world would love to live — so let’s make sure that we are proud of where we are from.”

Rennehan hasn’t made a dime on her down-home passion project. By her count, it has cost her millions. But somebody, as she said, had to take one “for the team” — team Yarmouth.

After leaving home, she worked on dairy and horse farms, but would cold call (yes, there is a pattern here) companies involved in the trades, asking if she could work for them on weekends for free. All she wanted was experience, a shot.

That shot came after Rennehan took a job with a flooring company and wound up with a wealthy client in Halifax with some high-end Brazilian cherrywood floor in need of finishing.

She didn’t know anything about cherrywood, or even much about flooring. For two weeks, she lived on coffee and chocolate chip muffins, and bought some flats of wood to practise sanding on. She tapped an expert in Wisconsin for advice — after cold calling him, too — and she produced her first, well, masterpiece.

“That was the luckiest moment in my life,” she said.

The wealthy client was thrilled. (Rennehan won’t name names, but will name the street the family’s mansion is on — South Bland — for those wondering).

Doors soon opened. More clients called. The Irvings called. And, in short order, a retail maintenance company — the first in Canada, Rennehan says — was born. It has since expanded, with customers south of the border and an office in Rhode Island.

But home will always be Yarmouth. Her twin brother, The Gatekeeper, recently moved back east to be closer to Ida and Momma Bear and to open a Freshco office with an ocean view. She, however, is still in Ontario, at least for now.

“In all the other big cities I’ve been in, being an East Coaster has been an asset for me,” Rennehan said. “It is who we are, how we were raised, to be grateful, to be humble and, you know what, if you’re not having fun, you’re not living.”

Financial Post

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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