After her father had a serious heart attack, a thirteen-year-old
Annette Verschuren was forced, along with her siblings, to take
over the affairs of the family farm on Cape Breton Island. Her
adolescence included regular high school pastimes — classes,
parties, and sports — as well as agricultural chores, from birthing
calves to arranging the farm’s finances. After finishing university,
Verschuren moved steadily up the corporate ladder and, in 1996,
became the president of Home Depot Canada.
Four companies wanted to hire me out of university, including an accounting firm and a radio station, but I wanted to work for a particular coal mining company back home. Four people from my graduating class applied for the job at the Cape Breton Development Corporation, some with connections in the mining business. I thought my chances of getting it were pretty slim. I did my homework and spent three days preparing for the interview. 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. It taught me the four critical factors to succeed in an interview: be prepared, be knowledgeable, respect your interviewer, and be clear about the direction you want the organization to take.
I was twenty-one when I started working there and had an amazing time. I was involved in trying to leverage the coal mining industry by supporting secondary businesses in Cape Breton. Because the company was central to the area, they needed to set up secondary industries and create jobs for displaced workers in order to make the region more diverse for the working population. There were many industries I tried to develop for this purpose — including metal fabrication plants, sawmills, and tourism — helping them expand, working with them on business plans, and securing government loans. The work seemed to enrich the area. I remember giving a loan to a woman who wanted to buy a sewing machine and start a business — a business that is still operating today.
When I started, I was in way over my head and didn’t have a clue. But I loved drowning in situations: those were the environments in which I thrived. Very often my boss would invite me into his office. “Look,” he’d say. “I don’t know how to do this. You figure it out and develop a program on your own.” That’s what I would do; and for three years I was the only woman working in an extraordinarily male-dominated business.
Then I was transferred to the coal side, the corporation’s primary industry, as director of planning, and, eventually, assistant to the president. They would continually put me in pressure situations. Since we were a Crown corporation, we had to deal with top levels of the federal government in Ottawa. I remember one particular presentation when my boss didn’t have the confidence to get up in front of a group of deputy ministers and convince them to spend more money in our sector. I had to do it instead. Here I was, twenty-seven years old, answering all sorts of questions on the viability of an underground coal mining operation in Cape Breton. It was fascinating. Of the four presidents I had in two years, I survived them all.
“Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started”, © 2008 by Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel. Published by Dundurn Press, www.dundurn.com