Mac’s-imum Retail

'That would be a fantastic spot for a C-store,' says Stéphane Gonthier, the VP of central Ontario operations for Mac's Convenience stores, pointing to about four dozen or so warmly bundled people waiting for a bus on a street corner in Mississauga.

‘That would be a fantastic spot for a C-store,’ says Stéphane Gonthier, the VP of central Ontario operations for Mac’s Convenience stores, pointing to about four dozen or so warmly bundled people waiting for a bus on a street corner in Mississauga.

Within seconds, Gonthier has sized up the corner, the surrounding shops, the pedestrian traffic and its convenience-store potential. ‘Look at the crowd,’ he says, as we turn the corner passing the commuters, still, evidently, dreaming of the possibilities.

Gonthier, who has been in Toronto for only six months, already has a good sense of the city and its environs: the best areas for growth, the areas that are a little too expensive and those to out-and-out avoid. He has to. The GTA is a big part of Mac’s’ aggressive campaign to dominate the QSR industry and transform the image for the convenience store to that of a fresh food destination. The overall goal is to take Quebec’s Alimentation

Couche-Tard from number four in North America (4,881 stores, including 620 Mac’s outlets in Ontario) to number one. And at its helm is Gonthier.

Mac’s has been a mainstay in suburban pockets of the country for years, but the big cities have eluded it, covered mainly by

mom-and-pop shops, 7-Eleven (number one in North America) and gas station counterparts. But over the past five years, following

Couche-Tard’s 1999 acquisition of Silcorp, which owned Mac’s, the strategy has turned big city. Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary are simmering with promise for the chain and are at the crux of its Canadian expansion plans. And most important is, of course, Toronto.

At the corner of Royal York and Bloor, a very tony residential part of west Toronto, the blue and white Mac’s sign isn’t hard to miss. Nor is the Second Cup on the other corner.

‘We’re going to crush them,’ Gonthier responds when asked if Mac’s will compete with the coffee chain, as he pushes open the door to the Mac’s location that’s still under construction and on track to open sometime in mid-November.

Mac’s has partnered with Subway and Timothy’s World Coffee in its quest to redefine the convenience store experience. Over the next three years it plans to open 20+ stores a year, some of them signature stores like this 4,400 sq.-ft.location. Hence the tree in the middle of the new store. Yup, a very large, perhaps oak, tree. And exposed brick. Antique-looking light fixtures. Oh, and the balcony lining the back perimeter of the store decorated with cute

little bistro tables and chairs.

‘It looks like an old, commercial street which fits with the [surrounding] environment,’ he offers. And apparently what the extensive research and design said will be the key to the company’s success. This idea of fitting into the environment has spawned a trading

post-inspired store in Marmora, Ont. in the northern part of the province and a Wonderland design store (complete with roller coaster) in the new Vaughan, Ont. location, which is close to the Paramount-theme park. ‘We’re not about using a cookie-cutter approach,’

he says. ‘We’re about creating excitement.’

Pushing the preconceived boundaries of retail has also trickled into the chain’s approach to marketing. A believer in segment marketing, Gonthier pushed hard for the edgy, quirky radio spots created by Montreal-based BOS, with the distinctive clanky sound of a cowbell, and the ‘Holy Cow’ print ads pushing milk, the convenience store staple. They’re quite funny, but still a little tamer than the ads with serious gross-out factor that have worked wickedly well in Quebec. (Picture raw beef stacked into a plastic cup to promote its Sloche flavoured drinks.)

So are we anglophones simply not as edgy and accepting as our carefree French counterparts? ‘All the ads that worked in Quebec will work here,’ he explains. ‘People in Ontario are not conservative. They’re very open-minded, but media are ruling the world of advertising and deciding what’s on air.’

‘I would run more offensive ads if we could,’ he jokes. ‘But people who think they know consumers don’t really know consumers.’

The Mac’s consumer, however, is very clear. Gonthier says the next wave of marketing, to launch in the spring, will continue to target its key consumers: men 19 to 54, and tweens and teens, who have incredible disposable income and tend not to shop in drug or grocery stores but will drop into a convenience store five to seven times a week.

In kind, product offerings have been adjusted. The chain, for example, recently introduced a line of candy with real insects (the likes of butterflies, larvae, and scorpions) lodged into the candy. Gross, yes. A hit with kids? Of course. Gonthier says since it launched five weeks ago, Mac’s hasn’t been able to keep the line on the shelves. The decision has even caused a bit of a stir in Windsor, Ont. where one father was disturbed enough to go to the Windsor Star, the local paper.

And what of the fairer set? ‘Women have deserted us,’ he admits, because of a

‘perception’ that convenience stores aren’t clean, have limited product selection and have much higher prices. But Gonthier is quick to add the company is determined to change

that thinking with aggressive pricing on its products and making its store designs more appealing to women.

After the tour, we’re having lattes at the competition across the street. During talk of numbers and strategy, it’s obvious that Gonthier, 38, loves retail. The VP operations is equivalent to that of a GM, as he’s responsible for real estate, IT, HR, marketing, the whole gamut, with about 270 people under him in the Toronto office.

After earning an MBA and law degree, Gonthier practiced for several years. The

decision to make a career change came one afternoon in 1998 when Alain Bouchard, Alimentation Couche-Tard CEO, and a

longstanding client, simply ‘made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.’ Within five minutes, he had decided to take the position, which began his successful journey into retail.

As VP operations in eastern Ontario, Gonthier’s marketing and business savvy resulted in sales increases of about 20% in five years and won him a spot on Caldwell Partners’ prestigious list of Top 40 under 40 in 2003. He’s a self-described risk-taker,

entrepreneur at heart, passionate and a man who always follows his intuition. And it shows.

‘Stéphane Gonthier has taken charge of Mac’s in Ontario and is really putting his imprint on the direction of that organization in this market,’ says Claude Carrier, president of BOS Toronto. ‘He’s pushing for dramatic change in every area, including marketing. He’s pushing the limits and pushing for some of the big decisions.’ Carrier has experienced Gonthier’s exigence first hand, when forced back to the drawing board after presenting BOS’ initial iteration. ‘He said: ‘This isn’t edgy enough,” Carrier recalls.

In Ontario, Gonthier’s approach has already paid off. ‘We’ve had double-digit increase in units,’ he says, coyly gesturing upwards with his hand, indicating an increase on the higher end.

‘Retail is in the detail,’ he says, by way of explaining his acumen for the industry. An MBA lesson? ‘That’s probably the law

background,’ he admits, laughing.