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THE LUNCH

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

He was impressed and suggested the two keep in touch. After a stint selling off assets for another federal holding company, she joined Mr. Crawford as a business development specialist for Imasco.

"She was intelligent, articulate and persuasive with a strong personality," recalls Mr. Crawford - and that personality rubbed certain people the wrong way. "Some colleagues said she came on too strong, and I said, 'If she were a man, you'd think she was great.'"

She developed an interest in retailing, and ran a small Imasco subsidiary, Den for Men. She was also ambitious and left Imasco to join up with U.S.-based Michaels Stores to bring its craft-store concept to Canada. After she led a fast, furious expansion, Home Depot approached her to head its new, struggling Canadian operation. She helped it grow from 19 stores and $600-million in revenue in the mid-nineties to 180 stores and $6-billion by the time she left.

But that was a boom market for executives; there are fewer big jobs in today's consolidating economy. Mergers are tossing a lot of managerial talent to the sidelines. In this scramble, Ms. Verschuren urges corporate leaders to look beyond the predictable pools to find talent with untraditional backgrounds.

"Could we be more innovative, more creative, in how we manage our businesses? Yes. Could we get more people involved? Yes. The broader the pool, the better the input."

It helps to have a network and her support group of successful Maritimers includes Mr. Crawford, various McCains, Sobeys and Irvings, and Toronto-Dominion Bank deputy chairman Frank McKenna. A strong network lends confidence to take risks, she says, but networking is not a passive exercise of waiting for the phone to ring.

"I've been very pro-active and I've driven the agenda. I've worked the connections and it is a two-way street. You have to work hard to gain the respect of these people - you have to deliver and be focused.

"The world is very competitive, and if you think you're going to get it on a silver platter, wake up. In most of my career, I've never just got a job - I've had to find it. You have to demonstrate pro-active aggressiveness."

She is also frustrated that managers do too much talking in meetings, but there is not enough execution going on. "I don't waste time. I love action. We talk too much and we have to do more. That is the approach I've lived by and it's worked for me."

It may work one more time, as she embarks on her last career chapter. And although she is no longer wedded to retailing, it is clear the love affair continues. Another U.S. success story is coming to Canada, bargain-chic player Target Corp. Her advice to Target: Recognize that 80 per cent of what you will find in English Canada is the same as in the United States - but if you haven't figured out the other 20 per cent, you're in trouble. And French Canada is a different world entirely.

"You have to be sensitive that we are a sovereign state, that we are proud to be Canadians, we are more multinational in our customer base. Our governments and laws are different." To be successful, she maintains, an incoming retailer needs a big component of Canadian home-grown leadership.

In fact, it needs leaders like Annette Verschuren, ambitious strivers with unlikely backgrounds who carry the essence of the farm - in their drive and work ethic, if not on their boots.

Roots

Born: 1956, in North Sydney, N.S.

One of five children in a farm family.

Bachelor of business administration, St. Francis Xavier University.

Last November, married Stan Shibinsky, a former marketing executive. Her second marriage. No children.

Career

First big job: Development officer with the Cape Breton Development Corp. in Sydney.

Worked as executive vice-president, Canada Development Investment Corp.

Joined Imasco Ltd. in Montreal as vice-president of corporate development.

Left to become president and co-owner of Michael's of Canada from 1993 to 1996.

In 1996, joined Home Depot Canada Inc. as president and CEO.

In 2006, chosen to lead company's China expansion.

January, 2011: Left Home Depot.

Outside the job

July 1, 2011: Named Officer of the Order of Canada.

Currently chancellor of Cape Breton University.

Long-time supporter of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Habitat for Humanity and Volunteer Canada.

Her new gig

Chair of the Governor-General's Canadian Leadership Conference. Program brings together 230 of Canada's brightest young leaders for intensive two-week program that touches every part of Canada.

The conference, supported by the private sector, opens in Halifax on June 1, 2012 .

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