If there’s one thing that outshines Annette Verschuren’s optimism for the future of Canadian innovation, it’s her unwavering belief that true success – and profit, to be sure – can only be attained when you deeply care about the people around you.
As part of Venture for Canada’s Scale Up Speaker Series, hosted in partnership with BDC Capital, Verschuren shared her own personal scaling-up story to a packed room at Dentons law firm in downtown Toronto.
Verschuren is perhaps most famous for taking the Home Depot from 19 to 179 stores during her tenure as president of its Canadian and Asian operations, but her other accomplishments read like an Ivy League graduating class. She was Canadian founder and co-president of Michaels (Canada’s largest crafts store), the Chancellor of Cape Breton University where she led a major fundraising campaign for environmental initiatives, a published author, and most recently, founder of energy storage development company NRStor.
Where it all began
Verschuren’s journey began on a small farm in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. At a young age, Verschuren’s father had a heart attack and was not able to work on the family farm; the kids took on the mountainous task of running the farm in their father’s stead, but they were not strong enough to work a full day.
This led her father to innovate ways to lower the amount of labour the kids would have to do. Instead of manually shovelling manure, which was physically taxing, her father created a system where, with a bit of water and metal sheets, the children were able to distribute the manure faster and with less effort. This not only made farming more efficient for the family, but manure costs went down.
An innovative mind was born, but perhaps not nurtured as it should have been.
Verschuren recalls her school years – where a guidance counsellor told her the only jobs for women were secretary, nurse, or teacher. When she giddily came back to the guidance counsellor after learning about this career called “accountant,” the guidance counsellor and her teacher both sternly reminded her, “that is a job for a man.”
“You just have to focus on caring for everyone as a human being. When you act with caring, it makes all the difference.” – Annette Verschuren
Knocked down but still passionate about education, she entered university to study arts, but quickly (and secretly, not telling her parents until she had good grades) switched to studying business. Verschuren “fell in love with business,” as she happily remembers, but took the time to acknowledge the stark gender contrast; she was one of three women in a class of 1975. The underdog narrative that was organically developing in her life only pushed her further; she entered the coal industry after graduating from university.
It was in the coal mines (literally) that she saw management tensions and “how not to run a company,” but it was a position she stayed in for nine years as she thought about her own next steps. While she was at the company, she focused on absorbing knowledge – both the good and the bad – from her colleagues and superiors.
Rapid change, rapid growth
Moving forward to a serendipitous meeting while she was working in Ottawa, Verschuren landed a six-month contract position in Toronto to help privatize government assets totalling over $3 billion in transaction value. It was a position she loved because she got to work with “incredibly smart lawyers, accountants, and entrepreneurs.”
A little later on, she met Jack Bush, founder of Michaels, at a conference in New York City. They got to know each other, and soon, Verschuren would become one of the three founders of Michaels Canada.
It was at this time that Home Depot approached her to run their Canadian operations.
The Home Depot and life lessons
Two experiences stuck out to Verschuren as the defining features of her time as president at Home Depot from 1996 to 2011. Interestingly, it was not that she took the company from $600 million in revenue to over $6 billion, or that she led Home Depot’s aggressive expansion into China.
The first defining experience came by way of environmental activism. She was inspired by forest management practices and admired how Indigenous people in Canada fought to preserve the nation’s forests. Taking lessons learned from Indigenous people – recycling old materials, planning for conservation, and promoting ecosystem health over singular gains – Verschuren revamped the Home Depot’s procurement and product waste policies.
'I was trying to make sustainability the key aspect for so many businesses' Annette talks about her early career w/ @Sarah_Efron #BDCSeries pic.twitter.com/s64l4t13S3
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The Home Depot shifted to purchase only from lumber suppliers who were third-party certified as respecting forest management practices; a huge step to take for a company at a time when very few, if any, major companies explicitly changed purchasing patterns to conserve forests. In the stores themselves, energy-efficient lighting was installed and Home Depot stores became some of the first LEED 3 and 4-star buildings in Canada. Further, the company donated recycled products to Habitat for Humanity, helping to build safe housing for low-income families across Canada.
The second experience was a lesson in humility and caring for your neighbour. The Home Depot had purchased land in the Greater Toronto Area, but due to permits, construction on the new stores had been delayed. During the delay, over 100 homeless people began to squat on the land, putting up makeshift housing that the media referred to as “tent city.”
“The most successful people I’ve seen are the ones who are not afraid to look for problems and work to solve them. Who are passionate about giving back to their community.”
After many conversations with her board and colleagues, many of whom felt the police had every right to forcibly remove everyone from the land, she agreed they had to get off the land but made a tough and final call. Not only would the Home Depot take excruciating care to preserve the belongings the community brought onto the land, they would help place every person in a shelter – all at the Home Depot’s expense. There was initial controversy around the decision but the community saw that the Home Depot really cared about the humanity of the individuals squatting on their land.
“In a seemingly no-win situation,” Verschuren shares, “you just have to focus on caring for everyone as a human being. When you act with caring, it makes all the difference.”
Those two experiences, more so than any of her financial success or great accomplishments, resonated because it was, as Verschuren puts it, caring about people and profit – the only way to succeed.
Retirement and NRStor
After leaving the Home Depot in 2009, Verschuren travelled to 17 countries and was shocked at how many regions face issues around food safety, water access, and energy consistency. She decided to do something about it.
True to her belief that Canada is a great place to innovate, she launched her own nimble startup in Toronto – NRStor – which has now grown to over 20 people in its four-year lifespan. The company tackles big issues such as energy harnessing, grid regulation, consistency of energy flows, and rural distribution; it not only has huge investor backing, but also boasts a partnership with Tesla.
When asked about her advice for young people, newbie Canadian entrepreneurs, and her younger self, her answer was nuanced yet profound.
Looking for a Tesla Powerwall? Contact @NRStorTweets to get one, the only distributor in Canada for the Tesla battery! pic.twitter.com/Ksco213zvY
— Venture For Canada (@Venture4Canada) November 16, 2016
She reminded everyone to be proud of who they are, because that is how you find your passions. When you find your passions, dedicate yourself to them, work hard, and ensure that you are loving what you do at its core (even if the surface level can suck sometimes). When it’s time for you to grow and move forward in life, ask for what you want and need because no one will offer you something if you don’t ask for it. Finally, she pushed the audience to think not only long-term, but with a lens of sustainability.
In terms of identifying a common thread amongst successful people, Verschuren did not hesitate to answer. “The most successful people I’ve seen are the ones who are not afraid to look for problems and work to solve them, who are not afraid to leave their comfort zone to try new things, and passionate about giving back to their community as a part of who they are.”
These traits, she believes, are what will drive the next generation of Canadian innovators – a type of person she happily knows to be inclusive, deeply caring individuals fixated on making things better for everyone.
It seems Verschuren truly follows her own advice, as her exemplary life story shows. She surrounds herself with people different than her so she never stops learning, and has never shied away from taking on a bit of extra work in the name of progress and problem solving. She’s still busy as ever with her numerous board positions and appointments, but in the meantime, NRStor is on track to grow rapidly as cleantech grows in Canada (an industry that already provides 50,000 jobs); perhaps even as quickly as the Home Depot or Michaels.