Billionaire Bouchard

'Convenience Store King' targeting 25,000 c-stores, talks success, succession

Alain Bouchard

LAVAL, Quebec -- Alain Bouchard joins the billionaire ranks this year with a net worth of $1 billion on the strength of his Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., which he has grown into a $23 billion convenience store giant via acquisition and "moxie," according to a Forbes report.

Separately, Bouchard was named Canada's Outstanding CEO of 2012 by law firm Bennett Jones, founding sponsor executive-search specialist Caldwell Partners and media sponsor The National Post.

Bouchard has been re-inventing c-stores since he stocked his first shelf at 19 at his brother's franchised Perrette store in Bois-des-Filion, Quebec, said the report. He spent five years laying out new stores as the chain expanded. Then he tried his hand as a franchisee for another Quebec operator, Provi-Soir, but chafed at the corporate mandates. With three partners he began what would become Couche-Tard. Over the years, it has quickly expanded and now has 12,400 stores including licensees.

Via acquisitions, Bouchard is targeting 25,000 c-stores, the report said. By comparison, Couche-Tard's biggest rival, Japan's Seven & i Holdings, owner of the 7-Eleven brand, has approximately 8,030 franchises and licensees in the United States and Canada and another 40,000 overseas.

Bouchard plans to pass the company he is building to his children, said the report. His son, who has cerebral palsy, and who Bouchard says "keeps him grounded," works with him; and his daughter may take his place at the helm one day.

Bouchard was honored Jan. 29. as Canada's Outstanding CEO of 2012.

In a three-part interview with the Business News Network (BNN) on Tuesday, he talked about his success.

The bankruptcy of his father's construction business forced him to become an entrepreneur. He bought, renovated and sold houses before catching the retail bug from his brother, who was a c-store franchisee.

"I discovered early in my career that I was not good at many things," he told the news outlet. So he decided that he needed partners to talk to bankers, for operations. "I was good at building, buying land and opening new stores, buying existing stores. ... And finding leaders--I'm good at that too."

He said that knowing customers is the key to making retail work. "I still go into all the divisions. ... I go every year ... and meet our people and validate how we work with the customer," Bouchard said. "Customer service is always first."

He still walks the store floor and looks at the merchandising.

He also said that "empowerment" is important. The company is very decentralized, and it empowers its divisional vice presidents to act as CEOs. Being decentralized was "the best decision we ever made," he told BNN.

In terms of moving into the United States, Bouchard said, "We look at out company on a one-store basis. When the consumer thinks of a convenience store, they don't think of any company [or] brand." The customer think of one store. "We look at each store as an entity. It has been easy in the U.S. because of that."

Also, Couche-Tard used local people rather than bringing in Canadians, he said. "Convenience is very local."

Bouchard re-iterated his goal of doubling the size of the company to 25,000 stores within 10 years. He also talked about "hanging up his skates" someday (he is 64), but said when he "eventually" changes his role "in a couple of years," he will still want to keep an executive role and be involved in acquisitions and new-store opening.

He said the company has a "clear" succession plan that "will be released in due time."

Click here to view the full BNN interview, including discussion of the Statoil deal and union issues (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

Laval, Quebec-based Couche-Tard's network currently includes almost 6,200 c-stores throughout North America, including approximately 4,500 stores with fuel. It has agreements for the supply of motor fuel to more than 350 sites operated by independent operators. Its North-American network consists of 13 business units, including nine in the United States covering 40 states and the District of Columbia (under the Circle K banner) and four in Canada covering all 10 provinces (under the Couche-Tard and Mac's banners). Through its acquisition of Statoil Fuel & Retail, Couche-Tard also operates a broad retail network across Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark), Poland, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Russia.