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Couche-Tard is now Canada’s largest company: How a chain of convenience stores beat the banks

Paper artist Pauline Loctin/Folio

Nik Mirus/L'Éloi

Convenience store giant Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. has always been a discreet company, even though it’s been publicly traded for the past 32 years. The Laval, Quebec, firm didn’t organize its first investor day until this past January. Executives don’t hold live conference calls for earnings—analysts must submit questions in advance. Media interviews are about as rare as a Canadiens Stanley Cup run, and you won’t find a fancy headquarters. It’s only by talking to other Quebec Inc. businesspeople that we learned company chair and founder Alain Bouchard is currently shopping for a corporate jet to replace his problem-prone Falcon model. In characteristic Bouchard fashion, he’s trying to wring a discount from Bombardier.

Couche-Tard has climbed to the summit of Report on Business magazine’s annual Top 1000 revenue ranking of Canadian companies in a similarly stealthy fashion. The quiet ascension of a soda-and-cigarettes peddler from Quebec begets a certain amount of astonishment and admiration. After all, for years the podium has been the domain of big banks and oil producers. “I think people would be surprised at the scale to which this business has grown,” says Canaccord Genuity analyst Derek Dley. “These guys are the premier consolidator globally in the C-store space, and they’ve been pretty active.”

The main reasons Couche-Tard reached the top this year are simple enough. About 70% of its revenue comes from selling gasoline, and prices have climbed over the past two years following a crude oil recovery. The company has continued to expand its store count and revenue dramatically, doubling in size several times through acquisitions in the United States and Europe.

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Today, together with Japanese rival 7-Eleven Holdings, Couche-Tard is among the world’s biggest convenience store players in an industry still full of small chains and mom-and-pop outlets. Last year, the company finalized its $4.4-billion (U.S.) takeover of Texas-based CST Brands, its biggest purchase ever. That added $9.3 billion (U.S.) in annual revenue and $400 million (U.S.) in adjusted EBITDA. The firm is now closing in on 10,000 stores in North America and 15,000 worldwide, most of them branded Circle K.

But Couche-Tard doesn’t do takeovers just to maintain the revenue and profits of its new stores. The company has a track record of improving those metrics by controlling costs, keeping good employees, improving purchasing and introducing other innovations. Private labels play a part too. The gummi bears, windshield washer fluid and other proprietary products increase differentiation from rival retailers and yield higher profit margins.

Until recently, few people, including those in Couche-Tard’s home base of Quebec, knew the story of how Bouchard rose from near-poverty, living in a trailer with five siblings, to the top echelon of Canadian business. A biography of Bouchard released in late 2016 finally raised the curtain on the man and his motivation, detailing how an aggressive, decades-long entrepreneurial effort, born of his father’s bankruptcy, became a retailing empire that made Bouchard a billionaire.

The remarkable thing, however, is that the company is far from done. When Bouchard was a kid, he sold sandwiches his mother made to construction workers to help make ends meet. Now, his stated aim is to become “the world’s preferred destination” for convenience and fuel. He means that literally—one coffee and cheddar mac-and-cheese hot dog sale at a time.

The United States still has a fragmented convenience store market and plenty of acquisition opportunities remain. The company is also searching in Europe and Asia.

“Some people say we’re the largest $50-billion company nobody’s ever heard of,” said CEO Brian Hannasch at the investor day in January. “And that’s okay. It’s part of the culture.”

Capricious consumers and volatile oil prices in the United States, however, are a challenge. Hannasch’s team is trying to figure out why U.S. retail traffic in general has slowed recently.

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Weather could be a factor. Last year’s hurricane season in the southern U.S. was devastating. Little sun also means people purchased fewer thirst-quenching beers and Couche-Tard’s proprietary Polar Pop fountain beverages.

But there could be something more deep-rooted affecting core U.S. customers. About 80% of Couche-Tard’s sales come from 25% of its clients. Hannasch says even if those customers have jobs and feel secure, they’ve seen their wages largely stagnate in recent years.

To improve the trend line, Couche-Tard hired its first chief marketing officer last November. Kevin Lewis is a big believer in mining customer data. “I am more calculator than crayon,” he told investors recently. Couche-Tard already has decent data. Executives know, for example, that the best place to put fresh flowers is not in the cold dairy section but in the beer cave, because customers make an association between the two.

Lewis and the new chief information officer, Deborah Hall Lefevre, want to extend that capability and build profiles of Couche-Tard’s best customers in order to better communicate with them and pull in similar clients. Other companies do this, of course, but Couche-Tard is one of the biggest and most geographically diverse.

Sheer size also gives Couche-Tard tremendous purchasing power. With each new takeover, the company pushes further with its “super local, super global” operational mantra. On an average day, it serves nine million customers and sells 190 million litres of fuel. But the company also caters to local tastes built up over generations, like the chocolate doughnut balls popular under Soviet rule that it has maintained at stores in Estonia.

There is still a big unknown looming as Couche-Tard navigates its future: What will happen to the special stock rights Bouchard and the company’s three other founders enjoy, which are set to expire in 2021? Those rights give the four men a separate class of 10-for-one multiple voting shares that allow them to control the company despite owning less than a quarter of the equity.

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In 2016, the founders proposed ex-tending them, but institutional share-holders, including Fidelity Investments, rejected the plan. Behind the scenes, shareholders expressed uneasiness about the founders’ children inheriting control of Couche-Tard.

Bouchard took the rejection personally, and it remains a bit of a raw wound. At the highest levels of the company, the matter is treated like the death of a family member. “We don’t openly talk about it,” said a well-placed source.

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