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Annette Verschuren – The woman behind Michael’s, Home Depot Canada, and Canada’s first energy storage facility

This CEO left her rural roots in Nova Scotia and conquered retail—overseas and close to home. She’s now championing Canada’s first energy storage facility.

Nothing and no one scares Annette Verschuren.

BY COURTNEY SHEA, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEFF KIRK


Annette Verschuren isn’t easily intimidated, whether it’s launching a new business or calling out the leader of the free world. The latter she did back in 2006—Annette (then the CEO of Home Depot Canada) was one of five Canadian business leaders to accompany Stephen Harper at the North American Trilateral Summit in Cancun, Mexico. She was concerned about a dispute over U.S. tariffs on Canadian soft lumber, and figured she may as well take her dissatisfaction to the top. “I went up to George Bush and told him that he needed to fix it,” she says, as if taking a head of state to task were all in a day’s work for everyone. Forty-eight hours later the situation was rectified. “I think [the solution] was already underway,” she says, “but I got the President to pay attention.”

This doesn’t seem to be a problem for the self-described “risk junkie” who now has people paying attention to renewable energy with her latest business venture, NRStor. The company, based in Harriston, Ontario, is Canada’s first energy storage facility—flywheel technology allows energy to be taken off and put back on the grid when necessary. This means renewable energy, like solar and wind, can be evenly distributed even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. The implications are amazing, but the challenge, says Annette, is convincing people that there is a market for this new and largely unproven technology: “New innovation is high risk—it’s not for the faint of heart.” Annette Verschuren doesn’t seem faint of much anything.

She was raised on a farm in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the daughter of Dutch immigrants. When she was 10, her father suffered a serious heart attack. He was physically unable to work a farm anymore—they thought they would have to sell it until the kids (Annette and her two siblings) offered to take over. This meant hours of labour and extremely early rising—Annette’s tendency to show up at school still smelling of the farm even earned her a nickname (Poopie), which certain Cape Breton pals still use today.

“New innovation is high risk—it’s not for the faint of heart.”

 

THE GIRL FROM NOVA SCOTIA STEPS OUT ON HER OWN
In 1974, she started at St. Francis Xavier University where a career councilor suggested she go into teaching or nursing or secretarial work. In her second year, she switched to business administration. Shortly after graduating, she landed her first job as a development officer at the Cape Breton Development Corporation—one of many posts that she created for herself. “People have this idea that jobs are something that get offered to you. Almost every job I’ve had, I have gone out there and created for myself,” she says.

In the early nineties, Annette decided she wanted to try retail and convinced the American craft store Michael’s to let her bring the business north of the border: “We did 17 stores in 26 months—I love accelerated growth,” she says. Her next big gig was as CEO of Home Depot Canada (she was the first woman to hold that position). Once again, she dreamed big and then made good on her aspirations. “I remember being in Arthur Blank’s office—he was the CEO of Home Depot at the time. He said to me, ‘well there won’t be more than 50 stores in Canada,’ and I said, ‘yes there will—there will be 100.’” In the end there were 180.

Annette was also handpicked to oversee Home Depot’s entrance into the Asian market. It was a huge challenge and a huge learning experience. “The stores were built for Western markets—we had to adjust the merchandise and also get Chinese people interested in DIY, which just wasn’t a thing over there.”

A WELL-DESERVED BREAK
In 2011, she married her longtime beau, Stan Sibinsky. Around the same time, she left her position at Home Depot and the newlyweds set out on a one-year trip of a lifetime—quite literally in Annette’s case (“I hadn’t had any real time off since I was 10”). The trip covered much of South East Asia and Europe. In each new city they would hire history teachers as tour guides, trying to learn as much as possible about different parts of the world. “What I took away was that the major problems facing the planet are food, water and energy—the pollution in some of these developing countries was unbelievable—the air, the water.”

RENEWED ENERGY FOR HER CAREER
When she got home, she was eager to start the next chapter at NRStor. Annette says the company is all about “innovation and growth,” which are two words she may as well have tattooed on her forearms. She says working with a team—especially young people starting out in their careers—brings her the most satisfaction. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about a legacy, but I have always loved teaching, watching people achieve and become happier because of it.”

Despite the demanding schedule, she makes time for giving back. She serves on several non-profit boards including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. (“Mental health is an underserved area—I’ve always loved the underdog,” she says.) Her home base is a waterfront condo in Toronto, but she spends several weeks a year back home where she is the chancellor of Cape Breton University. The school’s Verschuren Centre works on sustainability and recycling projects. “I think that’s a nice legacy for my family here in Cape Breton,” she says.

Her secret to managing a hectic schedule is to always be thinking about the task at hand: “So many people get overburdened by the 70,000 things they have to do.” After our interview, she is going to kayak around the island with Sibinsky—an activity that, like everything else she does, will have her undivided attention. “Too many people just skim the surface of life,” says Annette. “I like to go deep.”