To draw meaning from the raw rankings, CSP and Technomic broke the Top 202 down to groupings based on unit count. The goal was to amass and dissect public and proprietary statistics about these companies to find clear commonalities, create composite profiles and benchmark types of operations, while also pointing out differentiators within.
The results: five groupings, or “clusters,” based on store count:
- THE GREAT UNKNOWNS (50 stores or fewer)
- LOCAL LEADERS (51-300 stores)
- THE REGIONALS (301-700 stores)
- THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (701-3,000 stores)
- GLOBAL BRANDS (3,001 stores or more)
Foodservice data from Technomic allowed editors to examine the list via one of the channel’s highest-margin and fastest-growing categories. The analysis of foodservice sales per store (unit) and foodservice sales per square foot resulted in two additional cluster segments, HUNGRY TRAVELERS and TASTE OF MONEY.
The largest number of chains fell into the two lowest-ranked clusters, with 85 chains (42%) having 50 stores or fewer and 88 (44%) in the 51- to 300-store range. In other words, a whopping 86% of chains on the overall list fell in the one- to 300-store range.
The number of chains within each remaining cluster gets smaller as you travel up the ranks. The 301-to-700 grouping includes 16 companies, making up 8% of the Top 202, while 11 chains are in the range of 701 to 3,000, at 5%. (Speedway parent Marathon Petroleum Corp., Enon, Ohio, soars above the rest of its cluster with 2,770 stores.)
The top two chains, 7-Eleven and Couche-Tard, alone make up the Global Brands cluster. They represent 1% of the 202 companies on the list but account for 32% of stores represented, or 15,535 stores out of 48,258.
Any exercise in ranking naturally includes a look at who climbed up or fell down, but interpreting growth by store count can be tricky. Couche-Tard’s purchase of 1,277-store CST and one other smaller acquisition (counted in this year’s Top 202 because of significance despite the deals not closing in 2016) represented the largest number of stores to change hands last year; however, it represented only a 21% increase in unit growth for the already massive consolidator.
The chain that achieved the greatest percentage of growth was El Paso, Texas-based Western Refining. The firm purchased Northern Tier’s refining and marketing assets, essentially doubling its retail base to 543 locations. (That retail changeover will continue; San Antonio-based refiner-marketer Tesoro purchased Western Refining in a deal yet to close.) Similarly, Wallis Oil, Cuba, Mo., almost doubled its store count with the acquisition of retail assets from U-Gas, Fenton, Mo., bringing its store count to 66. Western jumped from No. 37 last year to No. 16, while Wallis enters the ranking this year at No. 90.
Multiple dynamics factor into whether companies grow, stay put or sell out, says David Bishop, managing partner of consultancy Balvor LLC, Barrington, Ill. Access to capital, supply-chain logistics and the chain’s cultural composition all drive growth—or lack thereof.