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Three companies that strive to create employee-friendly cultures

Freshco CEO Mandy Rennehan, amid a renovation to the contracting company’s Oakville, Ont., office, says she looks for employees who are motivated, ambitious and possess great personal skills.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Even when she's not busy running Freshco, her Oakville, Ont., retail maintenance and construction company, Mandy Rennehan is still looking to make an impact elsewhere.

As an advocate of women in the building trades, Ms. Rennehan is forming an alliance with Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., and spoke to members of its Women in Trades program a few weeks ago. She received a number of e-mails from attendees that evening thanking her for her time and for providing inspiration in their own careers, but one in particular stood out.

"She had decided she wanted to end her life before she had heard my story," Ms. Rennehan says. "Basically how I overcame all the negativity and the odds and just how being in this program and being able to be a part of it has made her feel like she has a life again."

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Growing up in a fishing family in Nova Scotia, Ms. Rennehan was an entrepreneur at a young age, selling bait for profit at the age of 10. She then used those funds to buy tools and used her leadership skills to put together teams to build log cabins in the woods.

That led to her developing a love of installing, repairing and maintaining wood, and ultimately, the foundation of Freshco in 1995. But it's the opportunity to give her employees a sense of purpose in their work and in their lives that gives her one of her greatest joys.

Describing herself as a "cultivator of misfits," Ms. Rennehan looks for people who are truly motivated, ambitious and possessing great personal skills. By her reckoning, she says that of 20 people she might interview for a position, at least 12 of them are looking for a workplace where they are able to learn and where people respect their opinions.

"There are so many people out there today looking for a purpose," she says.

While she works in what she terms an "unglamourous business," Ms. Rennehan has taken it upon herself to create a culture within her workplace where employees want to thrive. That ranges from spending money to build a working environment in Oakville, Ont., of which employees can be proud, to writing staff a cheque to create their own wellness plan, whether that means buying orthotics or going away for a week of sunshine in Cuba.

And that philosophy applies to the younger generations, particularly the millennials, that she hires as much as any other.

"These kids are passionate, and it's not that they don't want to work, they just want to make sure that if they're going to put the time into work that it means something, and that's what I'm seeing more so than anything," she says.

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The numbers certainly back her up. Surveys show a sense of purpose in the workplace is proving crucial for staff retention.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey earlier this year interviewed 1,510 full- and part-time employees and 502 business leaders and found that millennials are 5.3 times more likely to stay in a job when they have a strong connection with their employer's purpose. That contrasts strongly with figures for non-millennials, whose willingness to stay in a job came in at just 2.3 times more likely.

Sylvain Toutant, the president and chief executive officer of Montreal-based David's Tea, says that doing what is right for the customer, the community and our planet and each other is woven into the culture at his company. As a result, finding employees who share those same priorities is important.

"You have to first start with hiring talent that is eager to make an impact and that have a shared sense of purpose with your company," Mr. Toutant says.

"It's not a top-down approach – your employees need to feel empowered."

The same holds true at Freshii, a salad and sandwich chain with stores in 20 countries. Matthew Corrin, a 35-year-old millennial who, as the company's CEO, says he is the oldest person on the company's management team, got a huge thrill when he ran with the Maasai warriors, an ethnic group in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

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That was part of his company's five-year involvement with the We movement. So when the Maasai warriors came to Toronto in 2013 for a five-kilometre run down Yonge Street, Mr. Corrin again joined in and encouraged some of his employees to do the same.

"To be able to say you ran down Yonge Street with a Maasai warrior …," he says.

"I think it's possible that I was more excited than anybody on the team, but you can imagine the effect it had on a bunch of 20-something millennials."

In the past Freshii has offered specific menu items, the proceeds of which went to the We movement to feed one child for every item purchased. But this year, the company is stepping it up by holding a We Feed Day, where the entire proceeds for that day will go to We.

That kind of philanthropy "makes it really easy for [employees] to get passionate not just about working hard in the restaurant, but knowing that every time they work hard they're also helping the developing world," Mr. Corrin says.

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