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    The Consolidators

    The c-store industry is a realtor's dream these days. Given the number of store locations swapping hands almost daily, it seems there's no better time to buy or sell. And while major chains like The Pantry; Circle K parent, Alimentation Couche-Tard; and 7-Eleven Inc., the nation's largest c-store operator, made acquisition headlines in 2006, these companies and others are on the hunt for even bigger store counts this new year.

    The c-store industry is a realtor's dream these days. Given the number of store locations swapping hands almost daily, it seems there's no better time to buy or sell. And while major chains like The Pantry; Circle K parent, Alimentation Couche-Tard; and 7-Eleven Inc., the nation's largest c-store operator, made acquisition headlines in 2006, these companies and others are on the hunt for even bigger store counts this new year.

    The Pantry hasn't wasted any time in getting a jump start on 2007. As of press time, the Sanford-N.C.-based chain had acquired or agreed to acquire 65 additional stores so far in fiscal 2007. Chairman and CEO Peter J. Sodini said: "The pipeline of potential acquisitions for fiscal 2007 appears very promising, and we would expect to acquire at least as many stores this year as in fiscal 2006."

    During fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 28, The Pantry purchased 113 stores, an increase from the 96 stores it acquired in fiscal year 2005. As of the company's fiscal 2006 end, the chain operated 1,493 stores in 11 states.

    7-Eleven, meanwhile, has largely sat on the sidelines as its competitors have been buying up small and medium chains throughout the United States. But that all changed last August when the c-store giant took over ownership of White Hen Pantry, operator of 206 franchised stores in greater Chicago and 55 licensed units in Boston. The chain has since also agreed to purchase 10 McKee Oil Co. stores in greater Salt Lake City, Utah.

    These purchases are likely the first of several acquisitions the chain will make in the coming months as it seeks to grow business. Last month, 7-Eleven CEO, Joseph DePinto, said the company plans to add 900 more stores in North America by 2010. "We see us doing more acquisitions in the short to medium term," he said.

    Of course, in terms of acquisitions, the consolidator with the most voracious appetite is Alimentation Couche-Tard, which in its second quarter of fiscal 2007 alone added 157 stores to its portfolio of more than 5,200 convenience stores in North America.

    The company's president and CEO, Alain Bouchard, has stated that through acquisitions of smaller and regional chains, the company plans to rope in 100 to 130 stores per year with the goal of controlling 10 percent of the North American convenience market.

    The battle of the store counts is certainly heating up. From the look of it, those who thought 2006 was ripe with acquisitions haven't seen anything yet.

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