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    Couche-Tard Eyes U.S. Acquisition

    Deal would be "no smaller than 200 stores," CEO Alain Bouchard says.

    MONTREAL -- Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., the largest convenience store operator in Canada and one of the fastest growing chains in the United States, yesterday said it is close to acquiring another big chain in the United States.

    "We're making good progress in another major acquisition over the coming months and it will be our second platform for growth in the U.S.," said Alain Bouchard, CEO of the Laval, Quebec-based chain. He wouldn't reveal much about the target, except to say it would be "certainly no smaller than 200 stores" and wouldn't necessarily be adjacent to the company's holdings in the U.S. Midwest, according to the Canadian Press.

    In September, the company attributed more than 80 percent of its quarterly sales growth to the acquisition of 404 Dairy Mart convenience stores in the Midwest. During the summer, Couche-Tard also bought 43 stores from Clark Retail Enterprises for $24.5 million, bringing its total number of stores in the U.S. Midwest to 674.

    Couche-Tard has 2,575 stores in Canada and the United States under the banners Couche-Tard, Mac's, Dairy Mart and Becker's. Close to 1,000 have gas bars and some 170 include
    fast-food restaurants and coffee bars such as Dunkin' Donuts, Subway, A&W and Pizza Pizza. Couche-Tard plans to invest about $94 million in its network this year, excluding acquisitions, to open 74 stores, add about 60 brand-name restaurants inside stores and to renovate stores.

    Bouchard said Couche-Tard has opened three Dunkin' Donuts outlets in Quebec since it bought the master franchise for the chain in Quebec a month ago from British-based conglomerate Allied Domecq. The retail has vowed to double the number of Dunkin' Donut shops in Quebec, which stood at 104 when it bought the franchise. Bouchard said about half would belong to the company and the others will be independently owned.

    Richard Fortin, Couche-Tard's chief financial officer, said the company has achieved earnings growth in each of the last 11 years. He said $11,500 invested in Couche-Tard stock in 1993 would be worth more than $1 million today. In the fiscal year ended April 27 the company earned $66.2 million on sales of $3.4 billion.

    Couche-Tard differentiates itself from competitors because each store reflects the its locality, by appearance and by products, as opposed to the "cookie-cutter approach," Bouchard said.

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