Photo: HGTV Canada
In a Fresh, Salty Memoir, “The Blue Collar CEO” Details How She Overcame Sexism in the Construction Industry
In a Q&A with Nova Scotia entrepreneur Mandy Rennehan, a five-time winner on Canada’s Most Powerful Women list, she says she still has to flash her “don’t underestimate me” smile. / BY Sydney Loney / May 13th, 2022
At 10, Mandy Rennehan reimagined her father’s lobster business in Yarmouth, N.S. At 17, she revolutionized the construction trade on Canada’s East Coast. At 24, she convinced a boardroom of businessmen in San Francisco she was the only woman for the job, and took over facilities maintenance for more than 230 Canadian stores for one of North America’s largest retailers, a.k.a The Gap. As she writes in her memoir, The Blue Collar CEO: “Sh-t, I’d turned twenty-one before I’d eaten my first garden salad.”
You can see her in action beginning May 12 on her new HGTV Canada show, Trading Up with Mandy Rennehan, which follows the CEO and her faithful apprentices as they overhaul residential properties in her hometown of Yarmouth, N.S., with heart and “respectfully uncensored” humour.
In this Q&A with Rennehan, the founder of the multi-million-dollar construction company Freshco, she shares her unabashedly salty take on what you need to be successful, whether you’re standing in the middle of a construction site or at the head of a boardroom table.
Sydney Loney: You have a lot of nicknames: The Bear, Lobster, the Wood Whisperer, the Northern Wind. Which one is the one that sticks?
Mandy Rennehan: Ha! Most of those were just fun in the moment, but I’ve been called “Bear” my whole life. I love to hug – I can hug 10 people in one minute. But, because of my East Coast disposition, I’ve been taken advantage of a lot, and a friend once told me, “Bear, you need to find the grizzly in you, or you won’t last.” Now I’m 90 per cent fun-loving panda, but screw with me or the people I care about, and you’re going to see a grizzly come out that you don’t want to be chased by.”
SL: When you interview people, you have a history of crumpling up their resumes, looking them straight in the eye and asking the wonderful/terrifying question: Who are you? Why is that such an important question to ask?
MR: It’s true, it is terrifying to people. I’ve had job candidates get up and go to the bathroom because they don’t know what to say. But I don’t give a sh-t about what’s on your resume. I don’t care what car you drove into the parking lot or what you’re wearing. I don’t care what you are as long as you’re real and relatable. I care about how you make me feel when I’m sitting next to you.
SL: So, what’s your answer to the question?
MR: I’m about the best bear hug you’re ever going to get.
SL: An 18-year-old woman sitting next to you at a dinner once insisted you were “white collar” because you were wearing designer clothes. You turned to her and said, “Sweetie, I’m blue collar.” Why was it so important for her to know that?
MR: We’ve labelled these collars for so long, and so her feeling was that being blue collar was “dirty” and I was no longer role-model material because I’m in the trades. But I’m a success. Being blue collar is my reality. No one has given a voice to the blue-collar industry and that’s why I’m bringing visibility to it.
SL: At one point, you describe yourself as a “one woman revolution,” which must be exhausting. How have you learned to manage stress, especially since the time, early in your career, when you were so wiped out that you wound up with mono and shingles at the same time?
MR: I am still exhausted. But now I have little conversations with myself where I’ll tell myself, “You will get through this.” I’m much more self-aware and I know what I need to survive, even if it’s just turning my phone off or reading or going to the casino for a few hours.
SL: You dedicated the book to your brother, writing: “To my bro and best buddy. It’s bullsh-t we have had to continue without you and your stinky-ass feet. ‘Missing you’ is an understatement – it doesn’t even come close.” You write candidly about his sudden death from a heart attack at 38. Why did you decide to include this difficult time in your personal life?
MR: Writing this book unleashed a stew pot of emotions. We take life for granted most days and nothing can prepare you for the death of a sibling. You’re never okay, and you go through all the “what ifs?” I’m a fixer and there are still some days when I’m just so pissed off, and I can’t stop thinking, “what could I have done?” But Chris saved me. I was brought up to react to everything and it was taking years off my life. Chris’s death made me realize that and allowed me to be a better version of myself.
SL: Like the importance of family, good leadership is another common theme throughout the book, and at one point you link it to being addicted to learning. Why is it so important to never stop learning?
MR: The ability to keep learning and adjusting up and down is one of the core parts of being a leader. I’m never truly satisfied and have always felt that I was only using 10 per cent of my true potential, so how could I unlock the rest? I’m not an academic and the reality of being an entrepreneur is that it’s not something you can learn sitting in a classroom. It’s about being out in the world and always questioning things, which is how I realized that the construction industry was only being looked at in one way – and that I could change it.
SL: You’ve taken a lot of gambles to get where you are today, like habitually telling clients if they don’t like the work in the end, they don’t have to pay. You wrote that if we don’t take chances, we miss our greatest opportunities. How do you find the bravery to do that?
MR: It’s about fear. Fear becomes a dragon that we want to run from, but for me it’s, “Let’s figure out a shield.” There’s sh-t I won’t do – like bungee jumping off a cliff – but there are other chances out there, and taking them will free your character. You know you might slip and fall, maybe even into a full-blown sinkhole, but you still need to take them. Confidence comes in stages. There were lots of times I thought I wasn’t going to make it. That I would die from exhaustion or from a broken heart. But if I quit, then I wouldn’t feel the invigoration of making it. The thing that keeps me going is thinking, “If I made it this far then, holy sh-t, what’s around the corner?”
SL: How often do you still have to flash your “I dare you to underestimate me” smile?
MR: In every 10 meetings, I might pull it out three or four times. I walk in as a marginalized person, but being gay and female is not who I am. Being a funny, smart humanitarian is who I am. Once I shoot them that look and they see who I really am, they back off. My only mandate is to do the best for everyone in the room, otherwise, there’s the door.
SL: What is the key thing you want readers to take away from your story?
MR: No matter what you go through in life, you can still build a multi-million-dollar company. I’m so very human and yet I show what’s possible; that you have the capacity to find the tools you need to fix yourself, even if it’s just about doing daily maintenance to get you around the block. This book is about changing the narrative, and it’s a book about hope.