Friday, November 19, 2010

Annette Verschuren - Female Home Depot CEO

When the president of the Home Depot Canada says she'll do something, it's hard for anything to stop her -- whether it's childhood hardships, male-dominated workplaces or the daunting task of growing a U.S. home-improvement company from its shaky early Canadian toehold of 19 stores to its current 179.

Annette Verschuren will receive the 19th-annual Henry Singer Award from the University of Alberta School of Retailing for excellence and leadership in retail at a ceremony in Edmonton, Canada.

One of only a handful of female chief executives in North America, Verschuren says her upbringing as a daughter of immigrant Dutch dairy farmers on Cape Breton Island pushed her to shatter glass ceilings.

When Verschuren's father suffered a debilitating heart attack, the five kids, including 10-year-old middle child Annette, had to shoulder burdens beyond their years.

"We worked hard as a family together on the farm, and having that responsibility at such a young age really influenced my life in terms of capacity," Verschuren said.

"One doesn't think that a 10-year-old can pull a calf from a cow, but I got to do that and learned a lot about life."

Verschuren contracted a kidney condition, which required four operations between ages 15 and 21. "That makes you focus too, on life and where you want to go and what you want to be. I decided not to be a victim. I decided to fight it and here we are at the age of 54."

After switching from arts, she earned a business degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and got a job with the Cape Breton Development Corp., giving loans and working on business plans with sawmill operators and metal fabricators.

After moving into the coal-mining side of the business as director of planning, she moved to Toronto to work for the Canada Development Investment Corp. where she worked as executive vice-president privatizing Crown corporations such as merging Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. and Saskatchewan Mining Development Corp. to become uranium producer Cameco.

She joined Imasco Ltd., a tobacco, retail and financial services conglomerate where she worked for prominent businessman Purdy Crawford, who was impressed by the fellow Maritimer. He made her vice-president in charge of corporate development, responsible for investing in companies. But Verschuren wanted operational experience so she could run a company.

She was put in charge of 63 Den for Men stores. Verschuren stayed a year and then struck out on her own, forming her own company. She persuaded the CEO of crafts giant Michael's to partner with her and expand into Canada.

As president and co-owner of Michael's Canada, the chain grew to 105 stores.

That's when the Home Depot came calling for Verschuren.

Verschuren said it was tough to leave Michael's, and she wasn't sure if her independent nature would fit into a corporate job.

"We set the ground rules very clearly at the front end that I would have a lot of autonomy, and to this day I have amazing autonomy -- but you have to produce."

When she started in 1996, the Home Depot Canada "was not in good shape," Verschuren said.

"They had opened up five stores and hadn't put any inventory in, that's how tough it was. It was tough during those few years, and so we had to build it up, get the right team around me and build the organization. There were great people in the organization; they just needed leadership.

"Fourteen years later, we have 179 stores and do almost $6 billion in sales. We have 28,000 people working for us. It's been quite an exciting career."

Her gender is not a factor for her, Verschuren said. "I never knew that women and men were treated differently until I left home. ... My parents never treated me any differently than the boys, and the Dutch are a little like that. They recognize the equality of people."

Arthur Blank, co-founder of the Home Depot, told Verschuren he was heavily criticized for naming her to run the company in Canada.

"He said, 'I knew you had the energy and the passion and the determination to make it happen,' " Verschuren recalled.

"And remember Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus, the two original founders of Home Depot, are Jewish -- they were discriminated against too, and so they respected diversity. I never, ever honestly have felt in this company discriminated against."

But the fact a woman leads a home-improvement retailer still surprises many. If she's in a store with one of her male vice-presidents and someone announces the president is in the building, "every customer will come up to the man I'm with," she said, laughing.

"But you can't take that stuff personally. That's just society."

But she's as comfortable with volunteers on Habitat for Humanity building sites as she is with CEOs and politicians.

Volunteerism is a big part of her life and she encourages it at the Home Depot. September was the month of service where staff at all stores volunteered for community projects.

"People love to work with organizations that genuinely give back," Verschuren said. "Whether we get credit for that or don't doesn't matter. What's really important is that the community we serve gets better."

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