The Globe and Mail’s Innovators at Work is a contest to recognize talented Canadians who not only have great ideas, but turn them into reality through their drive and their actions. Readers can nominate candidates here.
Annette Verschuren is not a fan of puck hogs. “If you don’t let people assist,” she says, “you don’t win the game.”
The game could be on ice, but for Ms. Verschuren, it’s usually in the boardroom. She believes that innovation is best achieved through teamwork – and that teams work best when members check their egos, but not their skills, at the door.
“Give me a star team over star players,” she says. “When you’re all working in unison, nothing can stop you.”
The veteran executive has lived by this philosophy for decades as she helmed numerous businesses, including the Canadian arms of Home Depot Inc. and Michaels Stores Inc., and, most recently, as chair and chief executive officer of energy storage developer NRStor Inc.
When Ms. Verschuren builds a team, she seeks out keen entrepreneurial minds to see business opportunities from new angles. Following this philosophy, she was able to build Home Depot’s Canadian base to nearly 200 stores from barely 20, offering up new sustainability programs for customers along the way. Even today, she works with forward-thinking startups to develop new energy storage solutions.
Whether the company she works for is big or small, Ms. Verschuren keeps her eyes open for fresh, innovative ideas. She’s one of five judges for The Globe and Mail’s Innovators at Work contest, in which readers nominate the creative business minds in their lives to have their stories told in the newspaper.
Clearly, for Ms. Verschuren, teamwork is an important component of innovation. But so is creative freedom.
“I’ve always given people that work with me a lot of latitude,” she says over the phone from Nova Scotia, where she presided over spring convocation at Cape Breton University last weekend as the school’s chancellor. “I believe giving a person a bigger sandbox is so much more productive than restricting them.”
Through this philosophy, Home Depot Canada was able to launch the Eco Options program under her watch, introducing thousands of green-focused products to the store. The program pushed everyone connected to the retailer to think outside the box and consider more sustainable ways to do things, from better forestry management along the supply chain to reducing customer electricity use.
“It challenged merchants, operators and my whole team to stretch,” Ms. Verschuren says.
Her career has spanned numerous industries, and that’s certainly shaped her worldview.
“Bringing minds together across industry will create innovation,” she says.
A Cape Bretoner by birth, she first worked in Sydney, N.S., as a development officer with the coal-focused Cape Breton Development Corp. She moved eventually to Canada Development Investment Corp., where as executive vice-president, she helped privatize Crown corporations.
She took a step toward retailing after that with the Montreal tobacco-and-retail company Imasco Ltd. From there, she moved to the U.S.-based Michaels Stores and led the craft chain’s effort to move into Canada. In 1996, she joined the Home Depot, heading its Canadian division and pushing, at one point, into China as well. She left in 2011, becoming chair and CEO of NRStor the following year.
Ms. Verschuren’s leadership in business has been widely recognized by Canadian universities and business institutions. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2011, and was also 2012 chair of the Governor-General’s Leadership Conference.
Fostering innovative minds, she believes, is key to Canada’s future. Right now, she says, the country is too narrowly focused on harnessing its natural resources. “I love Canada, but sometimes that’s a disadvantage,” she says, when Canadians could instead be finding ways to add value to these resources instead.
She points to her Maritimes home, so often ignored by industry, as a place for inspiration. “It’s amazing what’s happening, maybe out of need,” she says. “I think young people are saying, ‘Holy smokes, am I going to wait for a job or am I going to create it?’ There’s more of that happening than people see.”
Creative-thinking Canadians have built massive companies before, including Bombardier Inc. and BlackBerry Ltd. – but, she says, enterprising small and medium-sized businesses will be the future of Canadian innovation.
There, entrepreneurs can mingle and think outside of the box – just like at NRStor, where she employs two science majors that have become “brilliant businessmen” while finding new, less wasteful ways to store excess energy.
“I’m looking for people who are positive, want to learn and grow, who are interested in being successful.”