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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.

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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