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Laval, Que.-based Couche-Tard has 8,500 gas and convenience stores, compared with 5,869 in 2010. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)
Laval, Que.-based Couche-Tard has 8,500 gas and convenience stores, compared with 5,869 in 2010. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)

Couche-Tard: With or without acquisitions, investors win Add to ...

It has been four years since Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. abandoned its bid for the U.S. convenience-store chain Casey’s General Stores Inc. It seemed like a missed opportunity at the time, a lost chance to take out a competitor and boost its own U.S. store count by more than 50 per cent.

Well, Couche-Tard has found a way to keep on making money, for itself and for shareholders. Thanks in part to big, yet well-managed, acquisitions elsewhere, Couche-Tard’s revenue and net income have more than doubled since fiscal 2010. It now has 8,500 gas and convenience stores, compared with 5,869 then. And its shares are up more than 400 per cent since the day the Casey’s bid was abandoned.

Now, though, investors have come to expect more of the same: Even though at Friday’s close of $34.90 Couche-Tard’s shares are only slightly more expensive than its U.S. peers, some analysts say the stock price reflects an assumption that Couche-Tard has more big, transformative deals coming in the near future. Absent them, they say, Couche-Tard’s upside may be limited.

The company’s recent earnings, however, suggest Couche-Tard can do a fine job of growing profits even without going on the hunt for smaller players. And if that’s so, the company’s shareholders will likely turn out winners either way.

Who believes Couche-Tard will make another deal? Just about everybody. Vivian Lo, a fund manager at Aston Hill Financial Ltd., told Bloomberg News this week that investors are waiting and watching for the next acquisition, and “if they don’t acquire something soon, you’ll start to see the stock pull back. Investors would be disappointed if there wasn’t a bigger acquisition in place.”

Even Standard & Poor’s, in upgrading Couche-Tard’s debt, explicitly said it would rate Couche-Tard’s debt one notch higher, at ‘BBB+,’ if it weren’t for intense competition in the fragmented convenience store business and “acquisitions that could increase debt leverage periodically.” In other words, takeover expectations are already baked into its model.

The chief reason for the speculation is Couche-Tard’s successful integration of its 2012 acquisition of Statoil Fuel & Retail ASA for $2.8-billion (U.S.). When the company bought Statoil, its debt amounted to 3.6 times adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). When Couche-Tard reported earnings this month, that ratio had fallen to 2.23 times, offering much more fiscal flexibility. It’s approaching the ratio of 2.10 that was in place before the Statoil deal, according to Bank of Nova Scotia analyst Patricia Baker.

Management is doing little to discourage the speculation. Alain Bouchard, the company’s founder and chairman, told analysts on the company’s Sept. 3 conference call that the company’s leadership was “busy during the summer.” He added, however, “our discipline has served us well in the past, and we will stick to that. We don’t feel that we need to overpay to continue creating significant value for our stakeholders.”

Analyst Derek Dley of Canaccord Genuity Corp. says he believes Couche-Tard was interested in two springtime deals in the U.S. convenience-store industry, but balked at the prices, which were 10.7 and 14.9 times the target’s EBITDA. (Couche-Tard paid 6.8 times Statoil’s EBITDA in 2012.)

Couche-Tard “was unwilling to pay such steep multiples as it remains disciplined with its acquisition opportunities,” he said, and is likely more focused on Europe where multiples remain lower.

But is it okay for Couche-Tard to sit on the sidelines? Recent results actually suggest so.

In the quarter ended April 27, same-store sales for merchandise (which exclude volatile pricing for gasoline) were positive in all of its regions, increasing 2.8 per cent in the U.S., 1.2 per cent in Europe and 3.3 per cent in Canada. The company emphasized fresh food and had improved merchandising strategies, Mr. Dley said. Margins grew in the U.S. and Europe, but fell slightly in Canada due to increased sales of lower-margin cigarettes.

“Couche-Tard’s organic growth appears to have accelerated over recent quarters, as the company has delivered same-store sales growth in all regions, coupled with margin expansion in all markets outside of Canada, which we view as very impressive,” said Mr. Dley, who has a “buy” rating and raised his target price to $40 (Canadian) after the recent earnings.

Michael Van Aelst of TD Securities Inc. has Couche-Tard on the firm’s “action list” with a “buy” and $41 target price, recently raised from $37. He raised his target-price multiple to the 18 to 19 range in part because the Burger King bid for Tim Hortons has created a “scarcity premium” in the Canadian consumer-staples sector. But it’s also because of what he calls Couche-Tard’s “attractive organic earnings and free-cash-flow growth outlook,” which is superior to its U.S. competitors. The target multiple is below Couche-Tard’s current price-to-earnings ratio, as well as those of Casey’s and U.S. competitor CST Brands, “leaving some additional upside potential.”

Ms. Baker of Scotiabank says that while M&A activity “remains a strategic priority” for the company, “the latest quarterly results soundly affirm the Couche-Tard business model does not rely on M&A activity, for there is a solid organic story playing out here as well.”

With files from Tim Kiladze

Couche-Tard's disciplined approach to growth

Alimentation Couche-Tard's expansion into Europe with the purchase of Statoil has made it the uncontested leader among North American-headquartered convenience store-operators. Analysts say, however, there's plenty of growth left.

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