Couche-Tard’s Wake-Up Call

Only 8.5 percent of Canada’s top business positions are held by women—up from a paltry 4.6 percent in 2006. But in the fiercely competitive and male-dominated world of retail, Couche-Tard’s Mélissa Lessard is rising to the top of the industry.

Alimentation Couche-Tard, the company billionaire Alain Bouchard started in 1980, now has more than 16,000 stores around the world. While the company is now unifying under the Circle K brand, Couche-Tard’s stores have operated under not only the Couche-Tard banner but also Mac’s, On the Run, 7-jours, Dairy Mart, and Winks. Together, the network forms one of the world’s largest convenience store companies in the world and Mélissa Lessard, its director of merchandising, is tasked with driving growth in this rapidly shifting industry. Here, Lessard speaks to us about the death of retail as we know it, using data to understand customers, and how to thrive as a woman in a man’s world.

The landscape of retail seems to be in constant flux. What changes have you witnessed?
There’s always an evolution, and we have to stay on top of it. Consumers have new and different demands and different expectations. Brands and companies that stay the same will fade away, and adapting is absolutely key to survival.

What has changed the most?
If I told you 20 years ago that you’d buy pizza at a convenience store, you’d never believe me. If you run out of milk at eight at night, you can go wherever you want to get it. Retail isn’t so specialized anymore, and we’re all trying to be the true one-stop shop. We’re no longer the only option, so we have to stay interesting and we have to push ourselves.

FOUNDED
1980

EMPLOYEES
80,000

REVENUE
$38 billion

INCOME
$812 million

CANADA
1,850 stores

UNITED STATES
6,160 stores

EUROPE
2,200 fuel locations

INTERNATIONAL
4,700 stores in 14 more countries

How can one facilitate innovation?
To win, you have to bring value so the consumer will pick you over the guys next door or across the street. We’re doing a lot to set ourselves apart from our competitors by offering fresh food and a variety of regional products. We have private labels, and we’re always willing to try new things.

How about when it comes to your store design?
We’re not going to triple in store size and nobody is going to spend three hours in our stores. But we can innovate and realign our floor plan to address new trends. We’re going back to a consumer-based approach, and we’re really looking at each individual location. We get data and info on each country, and then each state or province. We’re starting to rely more on contextualization and what we can learn about each specific store. If a town has a hockey team, for example, we might do more with beer sales or promotions.

How important is the data when it comes to your initiatives?
It drives big decisions, but it’s also important to avoid data paralysis. We do deep dives, but we’re also looking beyond our closest competitors. If some of the biggest companies out there are doing something really smart in other areas, then we should be looking at their best practices and figuring out how they apply to our own market.

How does your background help you navigate this uncertain environment?
I’ve done a lot of different things in communications and management and HR and then finally sales and marketing. Now, I lead a team of about 10 people, and I work with our suppliers to find the right promotions, prices, and products. My background makes me a good merchandising director because I can see more than one aspect of the business, and I understand how what our team does impacts the whole organization.

Have you found it difficult to break in as a woman—and as a young, female director?
Well, it’s still a man’s world in retail for sure. It’s challenging at first because you’re walking into a group of men that are comfortable interacting in a certain way, and they might not be receptive to a new perspective. I found the biggest challenge was around credibility.

In what way?
You have to have valued and trusted opinions. Internally, you’re not getting anywhere if your teams and colleagues don’t support you. I came here to listen first, not to step in and change everything.

Were you able to leverage who you are to get things done?
Women in the younger generations are more collaborative, so I did use that. When my teams saw my early wins, and when my ideas started to drive results, I got buy-in. I think that came when they realized that I value their input and voices. They saw that I’m human but that I’m also leading them. They eventually saw me not as a young person coming in but as a mature leader that brings real value.

And externally?
In some ways it’s harder because you don’t have the same amount of time to relate to the people you’re dealing with. I had to establish clear goals and expectations. I remember feeling like people were surprised about how tough I was.

Why did you need to be tough?
In early meetings, some suppliers would either talk to my employees or my leaders. They didn’t address me or make eye contact or e-mail me. I had to step in and set that expectation. That can come across as tough, but if I had let people dismiss me, I’d never flourish in this role. Now, they know that I understand their business, they know that I have a lot to offer, and they know that I’m going to work with them to deliver growth. So now we work collaboratively.

What were some early wins that helped you get off on the right foot?
Transitioning from marketing to merchandise was a big personal win; but with the team, we launched a mobile app three years ago after we had agency people telling us it would never work. We now have 150,000 people on the app in Québec alone. It’s won some awards, and we were top 10 in our category in the App Store for several months after the release. We’re bucking trends and trusting our instincts.

“Men are never afraid to say they want to be a vp or a ceo, but women often won’t. Share your plans and ambitions. You never get what you don’t ask for.”

Why is that important?
We want our customers to know that they’re going to get the same quality, the same standard, and the same experience at every location. And our well-known products like the Polar Pop will be the same no matter where they are. It’s much more than a signage project, it’s about aligning the store and the promise we deliver to our customers.

What advice do you have for others who are interested in retail?
Find allies. They could be your teams, your leaders, or anyone. You need people that can vouch for you, and you also need to voice your ambitions; especially women and young people. Men are never afraid to say they want to be a VP or a CEO, but women often won’t. Share your plans and ambitions. You never get what you don’t ask for. Be fearless. Not everyone is going to like you. Women want everyone to like us—that’s never going to happen. Forget it. Instead, take chances and focus on getting people to respect you.