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women in power: stories

Annette Verschuren, 54

CEO Home Depot Canada

Annette Verschuren spent her late teens pondering her future from a hospital bed.

The Home Depot Canada president faced a series of surgeries between the ages of 17 and 21 because of a serious kidney condition, and was warned by doctors that she could not have children.

Spending a total of six months lying in hospital gave her ample time to crystallize her dreams for the future and forge an ambition to reach for the top in her future career.

"You have the time to think about what journey do you want to go down in terms of your life," she recalls. "You can become the victim or you can become the conqueror, and I decided to want to become the conqueror."

And so she did.

The girl from North Sydney, N.S., has become one of Canada's most prominent female CEOs, running a Canadian retail empire with revenue of $6-billion a year while simultaneously overseeing Home Depot's launch into China from 2006 to 2009.

Ms. Verschuren, 54, took an unusual route to the head of Home Depot's Canadian operations, beginning her career in the coal mining sector with the Cape Breton Development Corp., later moving to Toronto for a job at tobacco, financial services and drug store conglomerate Imasco Ltd., and eventually investing her own money to bring U.S. arts and crafts chain Michaels to Canada.

When a recruiter approached her to lead Home Depot's launch into Canada, she turned down the offer, arguing she was committed to building Michaels as president and co-investor. But Home Depot convinced her to change her mind, and she jumped ship in 1996.

Ms. Verschuren said Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank decided he loved her "chutzpah" and energy. But she found out later he faced internal controversy about his decision to hire her, in part because she had no experience in the hardware sector.

"At the time it was, 'Well, how much home improvement experience does she have? None. How many times have we hired people and made them presidents from outside the company? Not once. And she's a woman - oh my god,'" Ms. Verschuren recalls.

"So there was a lot of controversy around that time. Arthur Blank said, 'Annette, of all the hirings I've ever made, I took the most heat from you.'"

The controversy died quickly as Ms. Verschuren oversaw Home Depot's growth in Canada from 19 Canadian stories to 179 today. In 2006, the company asked her to simultaneously take on responsibility for the company's push into China, making her head of Home Depot's Asia operations.

She says Home Depot's successful launch into Quebec and her experience operating in a bilingual country helped win her the nod to head the Asian expansion.

As a Dutch-speaking child of immigrants who has spent a lot of time in Europe and Asia and has worked for a U.S.-based employer, Ms. Verschuren says she believes global companies in particular have a hankering for globetrotters.

"I think it demonstrates flexibility, it demonstrates diversity, it demonstrates having a broader perspective on things."