Annette Verschuren’s ‘one more interesting thing’

Ten years ago, Annette Verschuren told a newspaper reporter she had “one more really interesting one in me.” That, of course, was NRStor, the innovative clean energy storage developer. Now? She is, I point out as delicately as possible, nudging 65. Is she ready to retire? “No, no!” she says quickly. “You know what, Stephen? I’m going to drop dead working. Because this is my entertainment. I love it. So why would I stop?”

Annette Verschuren

In a few minutes, I’m supposed to “meet” Annette Verschuren for a Zoom interview. While I wait, I squeeze in some last-minute cram-scanning through my collection of random but related digital research clippings. Here’s one: a recent CBC News story about the re-launch of the named-for-her Verschuren Centre for Sustainability and the Environment in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The 11-year-old centre had been celebrating its psychic metamorphosis from academic-bureaucratic beginnings inside Cape Breton University to newly nimble status as a “not-for-profit, stand-alone research and technology centre for commercialization of cutting-edge technologies and businesses.”

Verschuren, who is both the executive advisor to the institute and also the chancellor of the university, had explained that the change had been made to give the centre “the flexibility to move fast.” Sounds about right for Verschuren.

But…? Wait a minute. I look back up at the date: October 28, 2021? In the midst of the pandemic lockdown? The story includes an appropriately physically distanced photo of masked attendees at the event, as well as another image—clearly taken in the same auditorium at the same event—of Verschuren with Beth Mason, the centre’s CEO.

So, Annette Verschuren was there! But how could that be?

As you probably know, Verschuren—member of the Order of Canada, member of Canada’s Marketing Hall of Legends, member of the Nova Scotia Business Hall of Fame, holder of 10 honourary degrees—is a high-flying, go-go, here-and-everywhere-too business executive. The former president and co-owner of Michaels Arts and Crafts Canada, former president and CEO of Home Depot’s operations in Canada and Asia, now chair and CEO of Toronto-based NRStor Incorporated, an exponentially expanding start-up in the suddenly red-hot world of energy storage technologies. Verschuren concurrently sits on a gaggle of corporate and volunteer boards, including Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, Air Canada, Saputo, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation, the Rideau Hall Foundation and Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, “North America’s largest urban innovation hub,” which just happens to be where her latest venture, NRStor, is now a prime tenant. Not to forget she is also a member of the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders, as well as serving on Ottawa’s old (and new) NAFTA Advisory Council. And, oh yes, she’s also on the board of Sustainable Development Technology Canada and co-chairs the Smart Prosperity Institute, yet another national research network and policy think tank, this one based at the University of Ottawa.

It simply didn’t make sense for Verschuren would fly from Toronto to Sydney in the depths of a coronavirus outbreak and then spend two weeks in splendid self-isolation just to be present at an official opening that was mostly ceremonial—even if her name is on the door.

But, of course, it does make sense in a sense—COVID sense.

A few minutes later, we greet each other via video conference. How are you doing, I ask Verschuren?

“I’m good,” she says. “I’m loving it here in Cape Breton.” She chuckles with a kind of girlish glee. She and her second husband Stan—the husband who “loves Cape Breton” almost as much as she does—arrived on the island in March 2020 three days before the world shuttered. They’ve been there ever since. She shrugs. “I’m running the business. I’m doing all of my work on video conference, and so…”

The world has changed—for Verschurn, for the future of work and business, for Cape Breton. She’s already thinking of what that might mean for her, for the future of work and business and, especially, for the future of her beloved Cape Breton.

“What a treat!” she continues, her voice lighter. “I’m on the Bras d’Or Lakes. Stan and I are at a log house near Georges River. And it’s beautiful here.” She’d left her Cape Breton birthplace in the mid-1980s as a 29-year-old woman eager to prove herself equal to—which meant better than—all manner of successful, powerful men in Ottawa, Toronto, Atlanta, Beijing, the world. And she did. Now she is back, savouring the opportunity to spend a full year (“all the seasons”) in Cape Breton, the wellspring for her incredible business and personal success story, and contemplating the prospect for more to come.

What could be better?

***

If you simply skimmed Annette Verschuren’s origin story, you’d probably be surprised at the success she’s achieved. Born in 1956 to Dutch immigrant farmer-parents, Tony and Annie Verschuren, she grew up on a Cape Breton farm where the five kids doubled as farmhands—hauling hay, picking rocks, driving tractor, shoveling manure—and, oh yes, being on duty, morning and night, seven days a week, when the cows demanded to be milked. At school, the girls nicknamed her “Poopie” because, as she puts it, “you could never get the shit out of your hair.” During her late teens, she spent months in a hospital, enduring multiple surgeries, because of a kidney condition doctors told her meant she couldn’t have children.

Life on the farm had become even more demanding after her father suffered a massive heart attack. She was 12. The family farm suddenly became the family’s business for all of them. Although she was the second daughter and third child, “I was an equal contributor,” she says proudly. “As a matter of fact,” she adds with just a hint of mischief, “I think that I was a better farmer. My brothers would argue no, but I don’t care.”

But her life, she insists now, wasn’t nearly as draconian as I may have just made it sound. She played as hard as she worked, she says, and she and her parents, brothers and sister were all “best friends.” More important for her future and her future confidence in herself, “my parents never, ever treated us differently, the girls and the boys.”

The larger world? Well, that was a different matter. When she was in Grade 12, Annette went to her high school guidance counsellor to ask where her love for—and scholastic success in—maths and sciences might lead. “Look, Annette,” the male counsellor told her patiently, “your options are a teacher, a nurse and a secretary.” She remembered seeing references to university accounting courses and asked about those career paths. “Those are jobs for men and boys,” he advised.

In university, she dutifully enrolled in an Arts program but found herself “bored to death.” It wasn’t until her second year when she finally encountered a young woman studying business. “Tell me about business,” Annette asked eagerly. “Tell me what it’s like.” She soon switched to the business program, though she didn’t tell her parents what she’d done until she was able show them her first 100 in a Statistics test. “I found what would make me happy,” she says now.

Still, not everyone was impressed. After one bad grade on one business assignment, her professor told her, “Annette, I think you should enroll in secretarial arts. You don’t have the potential to be a business leader.”

Duh…

Even after graduation in 1977, her job prospects, especially in Nova Scotia, seemed anything but promising. She was one of five students from her St. Francis Xavier graduating class who applied for one job at the Cape Breton Development Corporation, the federal crown corporation that both ran the island’s declining mining industry and also attempted to drag its economy into the twentieth century. The other candidates were all men, some with family connections in the mining industry, some simply with family connections. It was Nova Scotia, after all. It was the seventies.

“I did my homework and spent three days preparing for the interview,” she recalled later. “I read all the annual reports of the corporation and became very informed. When I went in for the interview, I spent an hour and a half telling the guy what I’d do to turn the Cape Breton tourism industry around. That just blew him away. They gave me the job.”

She was 21. She had a job—she would continue to live at home with her parents and younger siblings until she left for good—but work was a hostile, ongoing proving ground. Often, she’d find herself in meetings where she’d make a suggestion, only to have it dismissed or ignored. “Ten minutes later, a guy would present the same idea, and it was accepted.” Once, she remembered, her boss hadn’t been able to make it to a meeting and sent her instead. She’d ended up at a boardroom table “with all these engineers and really bright people, but all white and all the same age, all buddies and all boys’ club.” She’d prepared in advance with plenty of questions. The meeting’s chair wasn’t impressed.

“What is it, Annette?” he said dismissively. “Is it that time of the month?”

“Sometimes people really hurt me, said terrible things,” she allows now. “The biases, the unconscious and conscious biases, are unbelievable.”

And yet she is quick too to note the positives too. “I would always find people that saw my potential.”

None was more important than Purdy Crawford, the Nova Scotia-born industrialist who sat on DEVCO’s board. One day, after Verschuren presented the corporation’s long-range plan to the board and Crawford had grilled her on it—“I had the answers”—he approached her. “Annette, if you ever leave Cape Breton,” he said, “will you talk to me?”

She did. After a three-year side-trip to Ottawa as executive vice president of the Canada Development Investment Corporation—privatizing $3 billion worth of government businesses—she joined Imasco Ltd., the Canadian conglomerate where Crawford was president. “He had the guts back then, when there were very few women in business, to hire me,” she says now. “I told him, ‘I want to be a CEO and a president someday.’ He supported me, he sponsored me, he gave me operational experience.”

Crawford, who died in 2014, would later recall his protégé as “intelligent, articulate and persuasive, with a strong personality. Some colleagues said she came on too strong, and I said, ‘If she were a man, you’d think she was great.’”

In 1993, Verschuren parlayed her Imasco experience, including time in retail, into a decision to launch her own business. She’d done her due diligence and decided there were six US-based companies she thought could do well in Canada. One of was Michaels, the American arts and crafts chain. “I went to New York to a conference, and I went up to Jack Bush, the CEO of Michaels, and I said, ‘Hello, my name’s Annette Verschuren. There’s a big opportunity in the craft sector in Canada, and I’d like to do a joint venture with you.’ He said, ‘Who the hell are you?’”

But they soon had a deal in which Verschuren invested $365,000 of her own money to become co-owner of a new Canadian Michaels operation. “We opened 26 stores in 17 months,” she says proudly.

Three years later, in 1996, a female headhunter called to gauge her interest in a job heading up the Canadian operations of Home Depot, the much larger US home improvement retailer. “I’d love to get involved,” Verschuren told her, “but here’s my issue.” Her contract with Michaels included a buyout clause, but it only kicked in in 1998—two years down the road. If she left before that, she’d lose her initial investment. “I couldn’t afford that.” So, she said thanks but no thanks.

But the headhunter was so convinced Verschuren was perfect for the job she talked Larry Mercer, the then-president of Home Depot’s northeastern division, into flying to Toronto to talk with Verschuren. Mercer returned to head office in Atlanta equally convinced. “Look, I found this woman in Canada,” he told his colleagues. “She’s perfect culturally for us.  She has chutzpah. She’s only got three years’ experience in retail, but you know what? She’s got enormous capacity.”

Soon, Bernie Marcus, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, got on the phone to his friends, the owners of Michaels. The deal was done. Annette Verschuren got her investment from Michaels back—“and then some”— and became the president and CEO of Home Depot Canada.

Over the next 10 years, Verschuren turned its Canadian operation into one of the company’s most profitable divisions, growing the number of stores from 19 to 179 and sales from $600 million to $6 billion a year. Her bosses noticed, assigning her the task of renovating their own struggling Expo Design Center, a high-end big box retailer, even as she continued to oversee the Canada division. Then, in 2006, head office tapped her again, this time to head up Home Depot’s fledgling China division—again while keeping her Canadian day job. Verschuren’s China division was supposed to be the pointy edge of the company’s continent-wide company push into Asia.

At the time, Canadian Business Magazine speculated China might just be “the start of bigger things for Verschuren,” possibly leading to the CEO’s job for all of Home Depot. “To many,” the magazine noted, “it seems that Verschuren’s retail management talents may well be starting to outgrow her home and native land.”

It didn’t work out exactly as expected. By 2012, Home Depot, which hadn’t spent nearly enough time up front understanding China’s very different retail culture and consumer marketplace, had closed all its China stores. And Verschuren herself had left the company. She is quick acknowledge the mistakes, but insists she made her own decision to quit and still remains close with company executives.

But, as she explained her departure at the time, “I am a growth person and I understand who I am.”

Still, her decision to exit without a firm re-entry strategy shocked many in the retail business community.

What was Annette Verschuren really up to?

***

The truth? “I wanted a break,” she says today. She was 55 and, after close to 20 years in the retail trade working under relentless 24/7 pressure, “I just wanted to reflect and think about what I wanted to do next. I knew I wanted to do something with purpose.” To figure out what that purpose might be, she and her new husband, Stan Shibinsky, a retired marketing executive, embarked on a “couple-time” world tour. “Twelve months, five continents, first-class all the way,” she explained in her 2016 memoir, Bet on Me: Leading and Succeeding in Business and in Life. “We hiked, swam and consumed copious amounts of delicious food… And we slept.”

Annette and Stan

And, oh yes, Verschuren pondered her next career move.

Despite plenty of offers, it would not be in the retail industry. Been there, done that. She wanted a challenge she believed really mattered, one that could “impact the earth,” as she explained to the Globe and Mail after she and Stan returned to Canada. “I have one more really interesting one in me.” She intended to make it count.

During her travels and her explorations, she’d had a revelation. What the world really needed for its future, she realized, was more security: water security, food security, energy security.

That Verschuren would choose to focus on the environment and sustainability shouldn’t have been all that surprising. In the late 1990s, for example, the US-based Rainforest Action Networks targeted Home Depot’s stocking of products made from old growth forests. The company once again tasked Verschuren with coming up with a response.

Remembers Verschuren: “With our purchasing power—this is where the power of business is—we said to all our vendors ‘We’re giving you two years and you’re going to get third-party certification on these woodlands, OK? Because if you don’t, we’re going to stop buying from you.” In the end, she says, the company only lost two suppliers. “Everybody thought, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to cost the company so much money.’ It didn’t cost a damn thing. It improved the productivity of the resource. It made people think differently.”

While she says she did consider a variety of options to help make people think differently—“I looked at a couple of organic food companies, some water stuff”—it was energy security she kept coming back to.

“When I joined Home Depot,” Verschuren marvels, “everything was plugged in, every piece of a power equipment, everything. When I left, nothing was plugged in, everything had a battery. And I saw what battery technology could do.”

And yet, when it came to developing the kind of energy storage that could create real energy security—providing more affordable clean power while aligning consistent supply with inconsistent customer demand—“there was no market, there was nothing.”

While she is the first to admit “I was not an energy storage expert”—in fact, she met less than 60 per cent of what she herself considers “the criteria that might reasonably be expected for the founder of a company reliant on technology”—she understood her own strengths too. “I had solid leadership skills and, perhaps most importantly, I was willing to get in over my head, make mistakes and not be perfect.”

Something else too. As her friend and venture capitalist David Patterson told her, “Annette, you’re really good at creating a market. You really understand the customer. You really understand where the customer is going.”

In 2012, she teamed up with Patterson’s venture capital company to launch NRStor, an innovative clean energy storage developer, beginning modestly with a still-operating “flywheel facility” that allows for short-term, 15-minute energy storage.

“It’s been exciting as hell, but it’s been hard,” Verschuren acknowledges today. “And it’s taken a lot of investment.”

But all that investment and hard work finally seems about to pay off.

In March, NRStor signed a memorandum of understanding with the Six Nations of the Grand River and Ottawa’s Canada Infrastructure Bank to develop the Oneida Energy Storage project in southwestern Ontario. The facility, which will be the largest-of-its-kind in Canada and one of the largest in the world, will provide enough energy to power a quarter-million homes by banking wind and solar energy and then releasing it when demand is at its peak. Over its lifetime, Oneida is projected to lower electricity costs to Ontario consumers by $760 million—“at no cost to consumers,” she adds quickly “What’s really cool about storage is that energy storage is the glue. It is the thing that makes all the assets more efficient on your grid. It is very exciting technology.”

After signing the project’s memorandum of understanding, Verschuren described it as a “game changer that can help to enable Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy and make Ontario a global leader in clean-tech innovation.” And she said something else too that brings it all back home to Cape Breton. “We believe Oneida will be just the first of many exciting storage projects on our country’s horizon.”

She does. “I want to do the same thing in Nova Scotia, in New Brunswick in Saskatchewan,”
she tells me. “To get off coal.” And she wants to do it—as with the Oneida project—in partnership with Indigenous communities.

One more good reason for Annette Verschurn to spend more time in Cape Breton.

***

Her first husband—“a good guy,” she is quick to note—had no interest in Cape Breton, “and I longed for it.” After they broke up in the early 2000s, she began spending more and more time each year back on the island. “Honestly, the last few years before the pandemic, I’d come 10 times a year.” She used her presence, in part to enjoy, in part to invest, “give back to the place that nurtured and developed me, whether it’s the university, the Verschuren Centre, the new hospice.” She jokes, “I’m like the salmon. I keep coming back up the river.”

Although she loves the beauty of Cape Breton, its history and its many charms, what seems to excite her most these days is “a whole new generation of people coming here,” infusing her island with new ideas and new ambitions. Not to mention those already here and eager for change.

“I have always felt women in this community were so underestimated,” she tells me. “Oh my God! In the old days the miners would go to the mine, but the women brought up the family. They did all the community work. They’re amazing. Those daughters and the daughters of those daughters are who we are now. Not everybody stayed, but I’ll tell you, there’s a good group of people that have stayed, and there’s a good group of people that came and also have enormous potential.”

Four years ago, Verschuren started an informal organization called Cape Breton Voices, “just a bunch of women” getting together to talk about education, entrepreneurism, social development, getting more women into politics.

Ironically, the idea evolved from a lunch she had with two men, David Wheeler, the former president of Cape Breton University, and Rankin MacSween, then the head of New Dawn Enterprises, a highly respect non-profit community development organization. “We talked about the need for change, for a more progressive, optimistic agenda.”

Verschuren began to invite interesting, ambitious, thoughtful women to sort-of monthly gatherings at her condo in Sydney to discuss, as the Voices’ website now explains, “contemporary community issues and to ask whether we can play some role in supporting, sharing and celebrating the many bright lights that now comprise our brilliant new Cape Breton constellation.”

Verschuren begins ticking off some of the names of the women in her constellation: “Beth Mason runs the Verschuren Centre, brilliant; Erika Shea, she’s now the president of New Dawn; Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw educator and author; Kelsea MacNeil, the communications director for the Membertou First Nation…”

It is no accident that another of their Voices’ number, Amanda McDougall in now mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Last fall, she defeated incumbent career politician Cecil Clarke. No accident either that Verschuren contributed $20,000, the largest amount by far, to McDougall’s campaign. Verschuren, Mayor McDougall says today, “really allowed my campaign to get off the ground.”

“Things have to change,” Verschuren says of her willingness to put her money where her heart is. “We need to find different leaderships, diversify the leadership, create equity amongst men and women.” Her goal is to make sure the next generation won’t face the obstacles she did, enable that next generation to create the “place I would have loved to be when I was young.”

Ten years ago, Annette Verschuren told a newspaper reporter she had “one more really interesting one in me.” That, of course, was NRStor. Now?

She is, I point out as delicately as possible, nudging 65. Is she ready to retire? “No, no!” she says quickly. “You know what, Stephen? I’m going to drop dead working. Because this is my entertainment. I love it. So why would I stop?”

She’s on a roll now. “There’s a lot of things about the pandemic that are so sad and so scary,” she acknowledges, “but there’s also a lot of good things about the pandemic that I’m really excited about. The way we operate can be more efficient. We’re wasting way too much time getting to and from offices, and I think that’s going to change…”

A few minutes later she picks up her thread. “The days of everybody migrating to cities are over, the days of not being able to have alternatives to work in a place like this may not be completely over, but I’ll tell you, it’s changing dramatically. Cape Breton is a stunning place. We can’t make it become something it can’t be but, man, we can really improve the economic and social opportunity here. That to me, is what brings me back, that to me is what I wake up in the morning and get excited about, that to me is why I make money.”

Perhaps Annette Verschuren does have yet one more really interesting project in her. Perhaps it is Cape Breton. Back to the future.

This story originally appeared in Atlantic Business Magazine.

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