How a Canadian convenience store giant built its empire

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There are few rituals more American than a stop at a gas-station convenience store. It starts with the badly needed fill-up or bathroom break, then progresses to an impulse food-and-beverage buy—the jumbo soft drink, the bag of chips, maybe something more substantial like a pizza slice, whatever it takes to replenish yourself for the interstate.

But what few drivers know is that this American road-trip ritual is increasingly likely to involve a huge Canadian company. CST Corner Stores in Texas and the Southeast, Holiday gas stations across the Northern Tier, and above all, Circle K just about everywhere in the U.S.: These familiar brands and others—making up 7,300 U.S. stores in all—belong to Alimentation Couche-Tard, a convenience-store giant headquartered in Laval, Quebec, outside Montreal.  

Having started in 1980 as a single store, Couche-Tard (pronounced “koosh-tar,” it means “late sleeper” or “night owl” in French) now owns or licenses more than 14,500 “c‑stores” in a network that spans North America and Northern Europe, with outposts in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Couche-Tard took in $54 billion in sales in its 2020 fiscal year, making it Canada’s third-biggest company. But the U.S. accounts for 70% of its revenue, and its stateside footprint could get bigger. In late July, the company reportedly made an offer to buy the 3,900-store Speedway chain from Marathon Petroleum. Although that bid was unsuccessful, Couche-Tard has signaled that it’s still on the hunt.

Couche-Tard built this gas-station Goliath with savvy M&A—including 33 acquisitions big and small in the 2010s alone. The company aims to buy well-run retailers that it can help improve, rather than acting as turnaround artists. “They’re never looking for fixer-uppers or things that are broken,” says Moody’s senior analyst Louis Ko of Couche-Tard’s leaders.