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CSP Magazine

Exclusive: One on One With Alain Bouchard

Retail chairman talks about the growth of Couche-Tard, his big wins (and a few educational misses) and the industry’s reason for being

“Yeah, maybe.”

That was Alain Bouchard’s response to his business partners when they told him the story of his career would make a great book.

That understatement is typical of Bouchard. He regularly brought that humility to investors’ meetings and earnings calls during his tenure at the helm of Alimentation Couche-Tard. But with the change in his role in 2014 from CEO to chairman, he decided the time was right.

Given Couche-Tard’s seemingly perpetual pipeline of newsworthy acquisitions, including the recent $4.4 billion deal with CST Brands, the time always seems right.

“Daring to Succeed: How Alain Bouchard Built the Couche-Tard and Circle K Convenience Store Empire,” by Guy Gendron, will be published this month. It encapsulates but does not cap the career of one of the pioneers of the Canadian depanneur industry, an architect of the c-store industry in the United States and the world, and a self-made entrepreneur who is still in the trenches making deals.

Motivated by the hardships he experienced as a child when his father was forced into bankruptcy, 19-year-old Bouchard went to work as a volunteer stock boy in his brother’s Perrette milk store. He immediately showed an aptitude for retailing. He quickly caught the attention of the chain’s owner, who in 1969 hired him to scout and set up new stores.

Finding the constraints of that company too limiting, at age 24 Bouchard went to work for Provigo, a grocer that tasked him with establishing its new Provi-Soir c-store concept.

Bouchard’s acumen and ambition eventually led him, in the late 1970s, to strike out on his own as a retailer, and his career has been an upward spiral of bold acquisitions that—with the help of several key, longtime business partners—created a global c-store empire with more than 12,000 stores, 100,000 employees and $50 billion in revenue.

In an exclusive interview with CSP coinciding with the book’s publication, Bouchard—who was CSP’s Retail Leader of the Year in 2005—imparted additional insights into his business philosophy, retail strategy and playbook for success.

Q: How did your father’s business misfortunes motivate you to succeed?

A: When you have steak on the table every day and you go to the ice-cream shop every Sunday with your family in a Cadillac and all of a sudden it’s over, [and] you start a new life with a very old wreck of a car and you go from regular milk to powdered milk and from steak to bologna—to me it was a shock.

Q: What did you learn about yourself because of this book?

A: I was quite quicker as a younger entrepreneur at making decisions—sometimes not always good ones—and I was quick to say, “I want this to happen now.” I have learned through the years to be more patient. My first move on CST was 20 years ago. Patience pays.

Q: What did you learn about the c-store business?

A: I’ve seen that the convenience-store industry is so good at evolving and adapting to the behavior of the population. A good thing about our stores is that we are close to the people. Owning small boxes is a good advantage. You can move more rapidly than big boxes and adapt to new behavior that is taking place. It allows you to be more agile.

Q: What do you hope other c-store retailers will take away from the book?

A: I hope that as an industry, we get better. I’ve heard too many times that convenience stores are the “last mile” of retail, not a first choice. In the early days in my career, when I would introduce myself as a CEO of a convenience-store company, people were not impressed. Today, it’s different. Convenience stores get more respect because of the foodservice and the fuel offering and how clean we are.

What I would like my colleagues and friends in the industry to do is to continue to invest and believe that we have a good reason to be there. The boxes we have and the locations we have can evolve with customer needs. We have a good raison d’etre (reason for being). If we can always execute the basics, I think we will have a great future.

I want to make sure my colleagues compete against us or with us and we can steal market share from other channels and each other. That’s good for our industry.

Q: Couche-Tard’s growth has often followed your bold predictions and goals that were originally met with great skepticism. How were you able so often to make them a reality?

A: I need to align my brain with my long-term goals. I started to share my goals publicly because to put my challenge out there, I would have to make sure that I delivered on it. These visions were more about challenging myself. I do it for my CEO Brian Hannasch. I put a goal out there that he had to double the company in the next 10 years when he took over. He’s done quite well so far.

Q: What was the best advice you ever received?

A: I was p***ed with customer service in our stores, so I called a meeting. I was doing that every year or so, and we were going down to the store in a blitz and the customer service was getting better. But three months later, the service was going down the drain again. So I said, Real [Plourde, former COO and current board member], “It’s not working. I’m doing something wrong here.” He said customer service has to be part of our DNA every day. It has to be a part of your thinking every day. The blitz doesn’t work.

Q: The worst advice?

A: The worst advice was from my banker. In the early days, he said to me, “Alain, you’re too aggressive, you’re growing too fast.” I changed bankers.

Q: As you did early in your career, you still identify acquisitions and pick and approve sites. What do you like about that?

A: I love it. I was a jack-of-all-trades at the beginning, but my job has evolved a lot. But that’s what I love the most. Every time I open a new-store project, raze and rebuild or a relocation, it’s like reading a new story.

I’ve been an operator, and I started my career working in the stores. I have seen the consumers’ behavior—how they enter the store and what attracts them. I’ve moved gondolas and products trying to get the consumer to buy more. I like that part too.

In evolving in my career from operator to supervisor to director and eventually to development, I was able to look a lot at how consumers move in the area, on the drive, so what I like is the story of a development, of building a new store—how we position it, how we make access, egress, ingress. There is a lot involved, and I’m good at that.

Q: Why did you decide to launch the global rebranding to Circle K? And why did you exempt Quebec?

A: That was a tough one. I was hoping that we’d come to the conclusion of the owl as our logo. I like the owl. But I knew by instinct that it was going to be Circle K. It had to be. The start of this came from our European leader, Jacob Schram. He’s a good, long-term thinker. He has a good vision of the overall market. He came to me and said, “Alain, it’s good to have all of these brands, but if we want to be global, we need to have a global brand.”

We come from Quebec. Couche-Tard is the corporate name of the company, and it’s a French name. Changing such a strong brand—Couche-Tard—which is so well-known, would have been a challenge here. And it’s emotional. It’s as simple as that.

Q: Did you really try to acquire 7-Eleven?

A: I went to meet with [chairman Masatoshi Ito] in Tokyo years ago. I said, “We’re both growing, we’re not really competing much in North America, so maybe it would be good to just start a discussion and see if we can build something together.” The answer was “No, thank you. We are happy with what we have.”

Q: Casey’s General Stores’ 2010 rejection of Couche-Tard’s takeover attempt was a major exception to the rule of successful acquisitions. What happened there?

A: Casey’s is a very good operator. They were very respectful about what they did. I think we helped them when we tried to acquire them. We helped them to realize how good they were.

For us, we thought it was a perfect fit for our Midwest network. It didn’t happen. We just turned the page. No hard feelings there.

Q: Any insights on the CST acquisition?

A: I met with the CEO of [refiner-marketer and Valero subsidiary] Ultramar in 1995 and I tried to convince him to join me and make a privatization play. They were not interested in doing that. We met with Bill Klesse, the former Valero CEO, four or five years ago, and we tried to convince him to sell their retail to us. He said no, and a few years later, they decided to do the spinoff. It’s another long story about patience.

Q: What will be Couche-Tard’s next major acquisition?

A: We are always working on many at the same time. We tend to be patient, and will take a break now. I’m not in a rush to make a big acquisition unless it’s something that we really want and it’s very complementary. That could happen. But it’s not in the plan to initiate that kind of acquisition right now.

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