Mandy Rennehan of Freshco. Photo: Freshco Mandy Rennehan of Freshco. Photo: Freshco

If a bursting pipe floods a big brand store somewhere in Canada or the eastern United States, there’s a good chance Mandy Rennehan will hear about it. “We’re that one phone call that any retailer can make, to make all of their headaches go away,” she says.

Rennehan is the founder and CEO of Freshco, is a specialized construction firm, focusing on maintenance and restoration for retail. Founded in 1995 and now operating out of Oakville, its roster of clients includes the likes of Restoration Hardware, Home Depot and Lululemon; in 2015, the company landed Apple. Freshco’s success earned Rennehan the No. 20 spot on the 2016 W100 Ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs, her second consecutive year on the list.

For retailers, time is money—every day a store’s doors are closed, thousands of dollars in sales aren’t coming through them. So Freshco is on call 24/7. But it’s not just convenience or quality that draws clients to the company. “Humour makes us unique—most companies in this landscape are ultra conservative and dry,” says Rennehan.

Freshco has some 30 people at head office, and has 250–300 technicians in the field, split roughly 70/30 between employees and sub-contractors. To find and retain workers with the right mix of personality and performance, Rennehan employs an unusual tool belt of HR practices. Here’s how she recruits and engages her employees.

1. Know what you’re looking for

Construction hiring is usually based on a candidate’s ability with the tools of the trade rather than who they are as a person. Rennehan cares about both. “A lot of companies today [will write] a job description based on skill set,” she says. “I’m more interested in their mindset.”

Rather than sorting by credentials, Rennehan looks for character traits. “What we’re looking for is characteristics that are outside of the parameters of a job description,” she explains. “A confident person is able to give me 100% more productivity than somebody who has a skill set but has [no confidence].”

2. Let your people do the talent-spotting

Every one of Rennehan’s hires to date has been referred by an existing employee. It’s not so much a company policy as an organic development. “We don’t have a program in place—we’ve never had to,” notes Rennehan. “It’s just really run-of-the-mill conversations.”

A plumber who asks a Freshco technician where they work is likely to get a glowing review of the company, which incentivizes the acquaintance to put in an application. “What we get in our doors is a lot of very unhappy people,” Rennehan says. “In the companies that they’re currently in, they don’t see growth, they don’t see personality and the fun that we have.”

Rennehan isn’t dogmatic about referral-based hiring, however. “We’re at the point now where if we take on another growth spurt, we may have to look at going to the more traditional lines,” she admits. But to this point, candidates have come to her rather than the other way around. (Referalls are also how Freshco gets all of its business). “The talent finds me, because I’m being talked about everywhere, because I’m just not the norm.”

3. Do your due diligence

Rennehan gets a certain amount of information about candidates from the people who refer them, what she calls “the Readers’ Digest version.” But knowing a Freshco employee isn’t enough on its own. They also have to pass Rennehan’s tests.

Freshco doesn’t always need another worker in the particular state or province where the candidate is based, but Rennehan will usually set up a meeting anyway. “The first interview is just, ‘Do we like this person?’” she says. “If we feel that your personality is not going to gel in this culture, you don’t get a second one—it doesn’t even matter about your skill set.”

Candidates who display the integrity and personality Freshco is looking for get a call-back. They then take a series of assessments, including a standard aptitude test, a handheld device test (the company uses a lot of online tools and services while on-site to boost productivity) and then a skill test in the tools department.

They’re also given a “talk test,” in which the candidate calls one of Rennehan’s acquaintances to see how they fare in one-on-one conversation. “We want to know, ‘Are you a likeable person?’” Rennehan explains. She likes it to dating: You may have no chemistry in real life with a person you seem to get along with online.

4. Be ready to teach

In most of the areas where Freshco operates, there simply aren’t enough tradespeople to go around. So Rennehan has instituted an in-house training program. Demonstrate the basic skills needed for construction work, and she’s happy to teach you the rest. “If you have these certain variables to your personality, we’ll train you,” she says. “You don’t need to have four years of trade school.”

Freshco structures its compensation with training in mind. For example, a candidate who comes in with framing skills and not much else would be assessed against two wage levels—that of a framer, but also that of a carpenter-in-training. They’d then be paired with a journeyman wood-crafter to learn the trade on the job.

5. Be ready to say goodbye

To get clients doors open as soon as possible, Freshco works hard and fast. Not ever recruit can handle it, Rennehan admits. “If you make it after three months, you’re in,” she says. “Some of them don’t even last two nights. They’re like, ‘Listen, this is just too high-paced for me, and I just can’t keep up.’”

Rennehan estimates that out of every 10 referrals she gets for a particular line of work, two manage to stick it out. There’s no formal probation period, though. “It’s just how it shakes out,” she says. “We don’t mess around. We don’t want to waste their time, and vice-versa.”

6. Build a team, not a group

Rennehan isn’t just looking for talented and personable individuals. She needs people who will work well together. “We basically hire these people on the premise that they can gel with one another and truly make a great partnership out in the field,” she says. “If they don’t, we have real issues, really quickly.”

Part of that involves building empathy. Rennehan knows that operations and head office can easily become siloed and resentful of one another. So she encourages her employees to see what life is like in other positions. “We’ll bring the techs into the office and put them on a conference call,” she explains. They’re often surprised by what it is that head office workers actually do all day. “[It shows them that] the people that are running their projects are not just sitting in the office sipping on Starbucks.”

Some Freshco staff have gone the other way. “We’ve had people in our office in project management or coordination roles that [go] on-site and then say, ‘I don’t want to work in an office. I want to be out in the field,’” Rennehan explains. So Freshco trains them for technician jobs.

7. Be one of them

Rennehan believes in flat leadership and mutual respect, values she attributes to her east coast background. Sometimes, that means working beside her workers. “Once in a while I’ll show up on site in my overalls and the people on site are looking at me going, ‘Is that not the owner of Frescho?’” she says. “So I come out and buy them Tim Hortons and we work all night.”

It also means knowing her employees as people—no easy task when you’ve got a few hundred. One area where Rennehan takes an interest is her staff’s homes. When they’re looking to buy or renovate, the boss provides advice, support, and design services. “This year it might be a new kitchen, and next year it might be renovating the bathrooms, but they know that I’ll take the time out to design them, and in our slow season that our guys will build it.”

• • • • •

Rennehan acknowledges that her HR practices aren’t for everyone, but you can’t argue with her results. “It’s outside of the normal hiring practice, we know,” she says. “But these are the types of misfits we’re looking for.”

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