Bouchard Shows Us How It’s Done

By  Paul Reuter, Chairman emeritus and contributing editor

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During my travels in 2004, a number of people asked me what I thought of Alain Bouchard and Alimentation Couche- Tard. The question was, really, did I think we were in for another “Circle K going full circle.” After all, many industry students knew full well of the brand’s history and some of our overall industry M&A blunders. Was this just another “build it high and flip it” plan? My answer was: Get ready to watch a company show us the way it can be done. Well, by the time we honored Alain as CSP’s Retail Leader of the Year in October 2005, all had their own answer to that question.

After sitting in the audience at the NACS Leadership Forum, listening to Alain’s keynote speech, I went back to our November ’05 cover story.

“When Alain Bouchard was 10 years old, he helped his mother sell homemade sandwiches and soft drinks to workers. … Call it destiny or fate, but those early days of offering convenience in the wilds of the Manicouagan riverbed shaped the mindset of the man who would—starting with a single store—build an empire that may ultimately rival 7-Eleven.”

Today, the company sees nearly 25 million customers a week shopping the country’s second-largest chain, one with the balance sheet, proven track record and willingness to acquire more. But from this man who loves to fish for trout, perhaps much can be learned about his “fishing”: “The trick is patience,” said Bouchard about his fly-fishing technique. “You can’t pull too quickly or too hard.”

Couche-Tard has more than 6,000 stores (with another 3,700 licensed worldwide), employs more than 52,000 people and enjoys more than $16 billion in sales.

If you want to understand his success and management beliefs, e-mail me for the PDF of CSP’s November ’05 cover story. As I read my notes from Alain’s talk in San Francisco and compared them to that story, I found it remarkable that his beliefs remain the same:

  • Acquire the best market intelligence. Today the company has 11 business units that constantly share best practices.
  • A rigorous management discipline to control cost and achieve a strong balance sheet.
  • A belief in the power of the person, getting he or she involved and unlocking the person’s true potential.

Leadership is about training yourself to listen to what the customer wants. As for the future, he provided a view of some of the more key initiatives. As an industry we will build larger stores, find a breakthrough in selling fresh food, face tougher competition, and solve the credit-card stranglehold.

As I sat and listened to all of this with keen interest, the statement that got my attention the most was at the end: “I love this business. I will be around over the next few days, and there is nothing I enjoy more than talking about this business.”

So I asked myself: What do the really great ones—the Sam Waltons, Chester Cadieuxs, Alain Bouchards, etc.—have in common? They’re people whose careers have spanned at least 30 to 40 years and have accumulated great wealth and power—yet day after day they get back in the game with the passion and determination to keep building and reinventing.

In our cover story about Alain, the comment from Stephane Gonthier (about when Alain called on him to join the company) probably says it best: “[Alain] was 100% convinced he could build something that would be great. Not only was it easy for him to share his dream, but he could make you understand how you could be a part of it.”

So the message I heard was one not just about a remarkably successful company, but also about an industry that has a rich future. If we can believe as Alain did, starting with one store 30 years ago, and have an ability to share the dream and inspire those who need to build it with us … now that’s a message worth the trip! 

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