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THE LUNCH

Still hungry, Annette Verschuren takes time choosing her next course Add to ...

When Annette Verschuren was growing up on a Cape Breton Island dairy farm, the girls at school nicknamed her Poopie because she could never erase the pungent odour of cow manure that lingered from her morning chores.

Four decades later, even after leaving one of the most senior roles in Canadian retailing - chief executive officer of Home Depot Canada - "a few of my friends still call me Poopie," she says with more than a note of pride.

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You can't escape your past, and if you're Annette Verschuren, you don't really want to. If you're confident about yourself and what you've done, you're willing to embrace a little stink and use it as a down-to-earth lesson in overcoming adversity.

Now, at 55, after touring 13 countries in three months with her newlywed husband - her first prolonged break in 40 years - she still carries the whiff of power and leadership, which she is keen to exercise one more time in her career.

"When I get back in the fall, I'll figure out what I'm going to do," she says over lunch at the Toronto seafood restaurant Rodney's Oyster House. It could be an entrepreneurial startup, she says, but not necessarily in the retail sector where she spent two decades - the past 15 years at house-renovation giant Home Depot.

She is spending much of the summer in Cape Breton pondering her future, and working at what she calls her "perfect transition" - as chair of the Governor-General's Canadian Leadership Conference.

After the summer lull, she will embark on her next challenge. "I have one more really interesting one in me. I will take a look and see what the options are. It is important to have this time to breathe and reflect."

The Poopie story may seem out of place at a business lunch, but this is, after all, Rodney's, a basement eatery with few pretensions and lots of seafood for a clientele that includes many transplanted Maritimers like Ms. Verschuren.

She orders the Fundy scallops, harvested on the opposite end of Nova Scotia from where she grew up in a Dutch-Canadian family - where the five kids were forced to carry the farm load after their father suffered a serious heart attack at age 42.

That experience instilled a can-do attitude that she will bring to the Leadership conference, an event held every four years to develop decision-making in young leaders. It focuses on community building, with alumni ranging from Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary, to Stephanie Cadieux, B.C. Minister of Labour.

In succeeding Suncor CEO Rick George as conference chair, Ms. Verschuren brings firm ideas on leadership - we need more and better leaders from diverse backgrounds, including women, aboriginals, the disabled. When you have more voices at the table, she says, you make better decisions.

But leadership also means discretion, and Ms. Verschuren is not dishing any dirt about the circumstances of leaving Home Depot after a largely triumphant run.

The decision to go was her own, she maintains - it was time for a change. After taking over Home Depot Canada in the mid-1990s, she led it through spectacular growth. But the home-renovation market had become mature with an increasingly crowded field, from newcomer Lowe's to established Canada players like Home Hardware, Canadian Tire and Rona.

"I am a growth person and I understand who I am," she says, adding that the essence of good leadership is knowing when to leave. And she never really had a break from work since age 10 when her dad got sick. Even university was tough, as she dealt with a kidney condition that required four operations. Now, she is newly married and wants time to reflect.

And Home Depot was no walk in the park. Management in Atlanta loaded Ms. Verschuren with big jobs, and she was often cited as a future CEO. She was picked to guide the retailer's thrust into China, which she now admits was tougher than anyone expected. Like many retailers, Home Depot went in with a Western store model that did not fit with Chinese shopping patterns. She knows now the process should have been more fluid, learning the culture and getting the model right before expanding - and she is pleased that that is now the strategy.

Ms. Verschuren says she still loves Home Depot and often quotes its founders - the men who hired her - Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus. But again, she is a consummate networker who does not burn bridges, as reflected in her membership in the tightly knit crowd of successful East Coast business people, jokingly called "the Maritime Mafia."

In fact, her first job out of university was with a federal Crown corporation which owned a declining coal mine in Cape Breton. One day, she gave a presentation to the board, including Purdy Crawford, a Nova Scotian who had become a Bay Street lawyer and was then CEO of tobacco, financial and retail giant Imasco.

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