Agenda: sustainability

Insider: Annette Verschuren

“Once 51% of the herd goes in a certain direction, it’s done. I think we’re now somewhere around 30-to-40%,” says Annette Verschuren. “From here, I think it's going to go fast”

Who Annette Verschuren, chair and CEO of NRStor Inc., a Toronto-based energy storage project developer and owner. Verschuren also sits as a director on the boards of Air Canada (TSX:AC), Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (TSX:CNQ); Saputo Inc. (TSX:SAP) and Liberty Mutual Insurance Group.

Involvement While active as a director, Verschuren is best known for her role as president of The Home Depot Canada from 1996 to 2011. It was there she first honed her expertise in linking sustainability to sourcing, marketing, brand development, corporate strategy and profitability. In March, she was on a panel at the GLOBE 2016 conference in Vancouver exploring how boards are integrating sustainability and strategy, and Listed asked her to revisit the topic with us.

Listed What messages did you want to convey to the panel and audience at GLOBE 2016?

Annette Verschuren There were a few main points that I wanted to make. One of the big pieces is that we have to pay more attention to sustainability in addition to profitability and at the same time as profitability. Another big message I wanted to convey is that I’m seeing a lot of companies taking a longer-term rather than a shorter-term view of company success. And I think those companies have a greater sense, a broader sense, of the responsibility and sustainability of their operations. And I would say that I’m hearing more and more of that around the board tables.

The last point was one that I really have lived by all my life, that pursuing sustainability produces innovation. When you have to think about, you know, profitability, people and the planet, the 3Ps, you have to look at things differently. It causes people to think outside the box, to try a different approach and to engage more people in solving problems.

I showed examples. When I was at Home Depot, one of the first assignments I got was to become chair of the environmental council. Arthur [Blank, Home Depot co-founder] took me in and we talked and we decided, look, strategically it is better for us to demand from our vendors, to use our purchasing power to improve the forest management practices in the world. And so that’s what we did. And when I look back, it was profitable. It really worked out to help Home Depot get a better product, be seen as a leader in terms of social responsibility. It really benefited the company.

Listed At Home Depot, that was mostly operational. Can you relate this more directly to the board level?

Annette Verschuren In my case, we’re replacing a lot of the fleet at Air Canada and a lot of those new planes are way more energy-efficient than the old ones. This is a discussion, we talk about it in our sustainability report, and we do that not only during the governance discussion but also as we review the decisions that we make in terms of making choices on which aircraft are better. All of that stuff comes to the board, so this is I believe taken very much into consideration.

Listed There’s more than a decade between those examples. These issues see a lot more scrutiny now. Where’s the impact?

Annette Verschuren I think you’re going to see more and more transparency and movement toward having good discussions at board levels about sustainability and tying it in with profitability. And recognizing that look, you have to be profitable, but there’s ways to do it more sustainably in some cases that can be even more profitable or, you know, have a longer-term impact on your company for the value to the shareholders, to the employees and the community.

Listed Did anything else from the GLOBE panel stand out?

Annette Verschuren I was very impressed with Harry Verhaar from Philips Lighting. He talked a lot about diversity, the diversity of the board and the diversity of perspectives at Philips allowing space for new and different perspectives and creating a healthy tension, and that healthy tensions create greater results. That was his big message. I totally get that. I was also impressed by Erika Karp, founder of Cornerstone Capital. She brought forward a really important perspective on investing sustainably. Her firm chooses companies and supports companies through its investment strategy to encourage longer-term and sustainable thinking. It’s really working for her, and I think she really hit it hard that there is going to be a movement of capital toward these companies. And when the money starts to move and the market demands that, it causes change to happen.

Listed What share of boards today are giving this adequate consideration?

Annette Verschuren Ten years ago, not much. Today, much more. Is everybody there yet? No. Are there early adopters? Yes. But you know, I have this theory. Once 51% of the herd goes in a certain direction, it’s done. And so I think we’re now somewhere around 30-to-40%. From here, I think it’s going to go fast.

Photography: Jeff Kirk

Interview by Listed staff

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