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Women CEOs leading the way in the trades

There are more women than ever starting businesses, especially those involved in trades, which is surprising considering those professions have historically been some of the most male-dominated businesses in the country.

CEO of Freshco, Mandy Rennehan, a very successful retail construction company based out of Oakville, Ont., believes that women leaders are essential to trades businesses. “A woman’s added value really shines through because we are passionate,” Rennehan says. “Women are detail-oriented and fastidious where many men aren’t.”

Millennial women are also catching on to the trend and starting their own trade businesses. CEO of Ash Street Design, Brittany Truppe, is one of those millennials. She started her business of designing and building interior speciality doors last year.  “It is a custom sliding door business. We essentially fabricate high-end interior-based wood doors in all shapes and sizes and I’ve expanded into contemporary styles and all different types of finishes,” Truppe says. “I really like the whole concept of the artisan market style. I don’t want to do cookie cutter stuff. I want it to be unique.”

These two women had to prove their worth in their respective areas time and time again. “Being a woman and being young, there were times where I definitely had to go above and beyond,” Truppe says. “Coming from finishing, there was a lot of time spent doing the tasks to prove my worth. You would get men throwing out terminology and the names of types of equipment to see if I knew what I was talking about. I felt I was being quizzed often.”

Rennehan agrees that women are tested more often to see if they are credible in their job position. “The biggest hardship is the confidence of the woman going into it. They need to make sure they know more than anybody in that space. Credibility is everything for a woman in trades. Make sure you have the passion and you are armed with the knowledge,” Rennehan says. “Many women have an irrepressible sense of accountability and if things happen, they will fix them. Women have a lot of advantages in this space, they just need to believe it.”

As a young female business owner, Truppe is taking a progressive approach to her artisan boutique and wants to keep her business relatively small, instead of aspiring to build a large corporation. She also focuses on the use of local woods and keeps costs low and affordable to give more people the opportunity to purchase one of her unique products. Though she is still in the midst of constructing her business, she also wants to dedicate part of her time towards helping women learn to build. “The biggest thing I want to focus on is having a program geared towards women to make them more comfortable working with tools, because a lot of women don’t. I envision doing it in my own shop,” Truppe says. “You would drop in for an hour or two and the women would build and I would charge for materials. I’ve networked with local artisan shops and furniture shops and they are pretty pro-women. I’ve found I have a lot of support from new-age men as well.”

Rennehan is also an avid philanthropist, highlighting the importance of women CEOs giving back to others after becoming successful in the trades sphere. She started a non-profit program through her other business, a design firm named Rennduprat, that will teach kids between the ages of 10 to 16 how to use millwright machines. The non-profit will then make Christmas ornaments through the project and ship them around the world. Rennehan also founded the Chris Rennehan Scholarship Fund, named after her brother who sadly passed away from a heart attack at age 38. The scholarship fund helps a tradesperson who is in dire financial straits by giving them the funds to go to trade school or obtain work through Freshco.

Women business owners are essential to the future of trades in Canada. Truppe and Rennehan both bring credibility, generosity, and a progressive community approach to their businesses. Though there are challenges to being a woman in the male-dominated trades’ professions, there are more and more women that are coming out as strong leaders in this type of employment.

Women of the Week: Mandy Rennehan

Staying humble and true to yourself after achieving success in the business world may seem like a difficult feat, but CEO of Freshco Mandy Rennehan, makes it look easy. Rennehan leads the retail construction supergiant, an enterprise that has spread across Canada and the United States. Rennehan is one of the top CEOs in Canada; yet, anyone in her presence feels extremely comfortable and important, a rare and welcome way to treat others in the high stakes modern business world.

“Growing up in a small town on the East coast, people are humble and simple. People will give you everything they have because they truly care,” Rennehan says. “I didn’t know I was going to be an entrepreneur, it just picked me and I’m 41 now. When people from home see me and talk to me, they tell me I’m the same way I was when I was 10. I left the east coast with a personality, a smile and a work ethic. I want to treat people like I want to be treated.”

Freshco is a boutique facilities firm that focuses on maintenance, projects and reconstruction. The company has landed some massive clients including Home Depot, Lululemon, Sephora and Apple, among others. “Freshco does everything on the mechanical and cosmetic level to retailers with any form of structure,” Rennehan says. “As soon as they are ready to open a store, we renovate, maintain and come in when there is an emergency. We call ourselves ninjas sometimes. All you see is the beautiful design, and merchandise and Freshco is the company that maintains that look all the time. We are there in the morning, and overnight.”

Rennehan believes that employee happiness is paramount to the success of her company. She handpicks all of her employees with her management team and then dubs them with a nickname. The chosen nickname for a new employee is put on company hoodies and business cards.  “I don’t believe in work-life balance and I think employers put too much strain for people to have two lives,” Rennehan says. “I create an environment that is cool, trendy and comfortable. I believe in the fun and narrowing in on people and bringing out the personality in them. Happy people are productive. We jam up the music and have fridges full of beer.”

Rennehan is also invested in helping others who need support in the trades industry. She launched the Chris Rennehan Scholarship in 2015 that supports people in dire financial circumstances to go to trade school or work for Freshco. “I launched the scholarship because my brother is a lobster fisherman and before he died, we were making a plan to get him into the floor renovation business. His death really affected me and my family. There are so many people who are lost and don’t have the time to go to school. They need to learn something right now because they have bills and families,” Rennehan says. “The scholarship fund sends them to trade school, or sends them to me and we can teach them. People are donating to the fund because they know I am going to do the right thing with it. These people are almost on the brink of mental health issues. My philanthropy and objective long-term to fund the passion of any trade and any individual.”

Due to her amazing work as a Canadian entrepreneur, Rennehan has received a number of awards including being on WXN’s 2015 Canada’s most powerful women: Top 100 award, in which she also received a letter from the Minister of the Status of Women. She also won EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 and was named 20th in Profit’s 2016 W100 list for top female entrepreneurs in Canada. Rennehan is often asked to be the keynote speaker at various events, most recently at the Women with Drive Summit on March 2.

Rennehan is clearly an innovative and forward leader that is taking Freshco to the next level with projected growth across the United States in the next year. The company is a success story, but had its trials as well. In 2010, FreshCo, a grocery chain owned Sobeys, was launched and there was little Rennehan could do about the extremely similar name (only difference on Sobey’s part being the capital ‘C’). The rub? Sobeys was one of Rennehan’s first clients. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that’s the truth. We got our heads kicked in with this, and Sobey’s was my first client,” Rennehan says. “I should’ve trade-marked Freshco and I didn’t. They took my font, my colours and everything. We completely rebranded and with the media attention I get, people are seeing the difference between the two.” Rennehan, true to her positive and upbeat attitude, decided to make a joke out of the issue and even launched a national campaign that including rebranding her trucks to say “FRESHCO, not the grocery store”.

Rennehan is also an avid supporter of women in the trades. Though she has been immersed in a male-dominated industry for the last 20 years, she has never felt discriminated against in her field.  “The trades are still very male-dominated, but it has never bothered me because they know I’m better than them,” Rennehan says. “Despite my sexuality, I’ve never been discriminated against a day in my life. I don’t listen to the garbage and I arm myself with knowledge. I’ve really been a poster child for not being a woman, but being amazing at what I do. Feminism is all fine and well, but just be amazing at what you are and you won’t face that discrimination.”

Rennehan is reading a book called “Spark”, based on a study between physical exercise and how it improves brain function. “Being married to Jane Fonda [a nickname Rennehan calls her partner] for years, I’ve been very involved in exercise,” Rennehan says.”She also loves to golf, play tennis, travel ad is a big wine connoisseur. Her favourite travel destination is Tuscany.

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