Top COO 2005: Réal Plourde, Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.

Honorable mentions: Rob Rose, Cognos Inc. and Gerald Soloway and Roy Vincent Home Capital Group Inc.

The Boss report: 2006 | 2005

Intro | Top CEO | Top CFO | Top in sales | CEOs to watch | Top COO | Top in technology | Most innovative CEO

Réal Plourde
Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (TSX: ATB.SV.B)

Date of birth: September 30, 1950
Years at company: 20
Last position: VP Sales and Operations
Education: MBA, HEC Montréal

Twenty years ago, as Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.'s director of technical services, it was Réal Plourde's job to ensure that the lights remained on and the roof didn't leak at any of the fledgling chain's 10 convenience stores in Quebec. Today, Plourde's job is a lot more complicated. As Couche-Tard's chief operating officer, he has to ensure that the company's 4,796 locations across Canada and the United States all run smoothly. “We like to refer to ourselves as a chain of one,” he says. “All the stores have to operate as if it was the only one we had.”

That strategy has been a large part of Couche-Tard's success as it has grown from a single outlet, started by company founder Alain Bouchard, to the largest operator of convenience stores in Canada and the second-largest U.S. proprietor not affiliated with a gas company. And while Bouchard may be the architect of Couche-Tard's successful strategy, it's Plourde that makes that vision a reality.

The company's biggest growth spurt came last year with the US$800-million acquisition of more than 1,600 Circle K convenience stores in 16 states. So far, everything's on track. In the first nine months since buying Circle K, Couche-Tard has reported more than US$66 million in savings from integrating the new locations. And those stores are not just cookie-cutter operations, either. One of the keys to Couche-Tard's success has been tailoring each store–whether it be a Mac's in Toronto or a Circle K in Dayton, Ohio–to the individual needs of its local market. Each outlet has a unique design and can stock and promote items differently.

It's a strategy Plourde developed early in his career, while working as an engineer designing and building roads in Zaire and Togo. “In Africa you can't just go in and do things the way they are done in North America,” he says. “You have to adapt yourself to the culture and the people or you won't get anything done.” In the case of Couche-Tard, customizing the stores encourages shoppers to come in more often and buy more than just an emergency carton of milk or loaf of bread. Such differentiation also helps stores in one market learn from the success of those in others, says Plourde. For instance, last year some of Couche-Tard's operators in the U.S. Midwest began experimenting with owning and operating their own ATMs. They quickly found that the cash dispensers were a solid source of revenue. Now, all Couche-Tard stores are getting their own automated tellers.

Letting local staff test their own ideas has not only grown the profits of the company, but Plourde says it has helped build more creative and self-reliant employees. “Concentrating power in the head office doesn't work anymore,” he adds. “If I make all the decisions, they will always be knocking down my door. You have to let people make their own choices and take pride in their success.”

That doesn't mean Couche-Tard executives aren't keeping a close eye on their retail outposts. The company has invested tens of millions of dollars in scanners and other communications technology to track what is selling and what is sitting on the shelves. Couche-Tard uses that data to continue adjusting for local differences.

Adaptation is now part of the company's DNA, and that should help it not only survive, but thrive in the ever-changing retail landscape. “Couche-Tard will still be here in 15 to 20 years,” says Plourde. “I don't know what its stores will look like, but it will be here.” J.G.

Honourable mentions

Rob Rose
Cognos Inc. (TSX: CSN)

Date of birth: May 16, 1961
Years at company: 12
Last position: VP Corporate Strategy and Business Development
Education: High School

Everyone has his own way of thinking through problems. When Cognos Inc.'s chief strategy officer, Rob Rose, needs to mull over some perplexing issue, he swings his office chair around and reaches for his burgundy Schecter C-1 Classic electric guitar. “It is the alpha-wave-inducing pause-for-the-cause during the day,” he says. “I probably spend 20 minutes every day just noodling and clearing my mind.”

Whatever works–and in Rose's case, it clearly does. Cognos, based in Ottawa, has carved out a lucrative niche for itself as a developer of business-intelligence software–applications that help companies glean insight from their operations' data–and will soon reach the US$1-billion milestone for annual sales. Rose, a 43-year-old musician who never finished his liberal arts degree at Carleton University, was key to fashioning the winning product portfolio.

Most of Rose's two decades in the software industry have been spent with Cognos. He began working for a board member in 1989 before formally joining the company in 1991 to do product management. In 1996, before he even had “strategy” in his title, Rose tirelessly advocated that Cognos be the first company of its kind to develop a web-based product. By embracing the web, Rose says, Cognos gained a competitive advantage it still enjoys today.

But perhaps his greatest influence was making the case five years ago for Cognos to broaden its product line into performance-management software. Rose saw it as a natural evolution of the business-intelligence applications, which let firms mine databases for a clearer picture of what was happening in their business. If customers are making decisions based on that data, he reasoned, they must be comparing it to some planning target. By developing applications that help customers manage all stages of the processes they use to plan and improve performance, Cognos could become more strategically important to them. That keen insight has lead Cognos to define a portfolio that's so complete, it has effectively cornered the burgeoning market.

These days, it's Rose's job to help management define the strategy, and to make sure it's on track. Being a musician helps, he says. “Structured compositional thinking–a bunch of interrelated things that all come together,” explains Rose. “Music is a listening skill. [Strategy] is about listening for weak signals and being an excellent synthesist of a variety of related and sometimes even unrelated information.”

By the way, Rose's band, 30YRSL8, released its first album, “Elemental,” on April 14, which he describes as an eclectic mix of jazz, rock and blues. No doubt it induces alpha waves. A.W.

Gerald Soloway & Roy Vincent
Home Capital Group Inc. (TSX: HCG)

Date of birth: Soloway: August 6, 1938; Vincent: February 25, 1940
Years at company: Soloway and Vincent: 18
Last position: Soloway: Commercial and Real Estate Lawyer; Vincent: Senior Manager Real Estate Lending, Bank of Montreal
Education: Soloway: Law, Osgoode Hall; Vincent: High School

When Gerald Soloway and Roy Vincent took control of Home Capital Group Inc., in 1987, the company had just 12 employees. Thanks to the pair's dynamic leadership, the Toronto-based lender is now the country's largest alternative provider of residential first mortgages, and boasts assets of $2.57 billion, 244 employees in offices across the country and 38 consecutive quarters of increased earnings. What's more, since teaming up with Visa in 2000 and launching a credit-card business, Home Capital's stock price, which lingered at less than $5 throughout the 1990s, has shot up to about $33. If you invested $100 in Home Capital on Dec. 31, 1994, and reinvested gains it would now be worth more than $10,000.

President and CEO Soloway (left), a slow-talking strategic thinker, describes the company's key customers as “people who are creditworthy but can't fulfil the major financial institutions' criteria,” pointing to the self-employed, workers entering the job market for the first time, and immigrants as examples. “Life isn't always smooth,” adds senior vice-president and COO Vincent, hinting at the guiding philosophy that has paid off so handsomely: to serve the 20% of mortgage applicants rejected by the major banks.

Organic growth, combined with smart hiring, has been critical. “It's less stressful to hire good people than to buy and integrate other businesses,” says Soloway. An open-door management style is also an essential ingredient in Home Capital's success. “There's not a lot of formality or ceremony here,” says Soloway. “The senior management are not treated any differently than the people who work here.”

Soloway estimates Home Capital has snagged only 3% to 4% of available market share for residential mortgages not serviced by banks, and is confident the firm can keep up its phenomenal 30%-plus growth rate. What's more, the Visa business, a credit card that also acts as a home-equity-based line of credit, is coming on strong. While there are only about 2,500 Equity Plus Visas currently in circulation, analysts predict that number will grow to 35,000 by 2008–with receivables of $600 million.

After 18 years at the helm, both Soloway, 66, and Vincent, 65, are thinking about retirement. But there's so much momentum at the corporation right now–they've hired 20 new employees since January, expect to add another 30 before the end of the year, and are leasing an additional 20,000 square feet of space–the two are reluctant to go. “I''m enjoying it,” says Soloway. “I won't be here forever. But in the meantime, it's really exciting.” L.B.