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A path laid in the pursuit of family honour

Alain Bouchard, founder and executive chairman of Alimentation Couche-Tard, poses outside the company’s head office in Laval, Que., on Sept. 30.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Title
Daring to Succeed: How Alain Bouchard Built the Couche-Tard & Circle K Convenience Store Empire.
Author
Guy Gendron
Publisher
Juniper Publishing

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Daring to Succeed: How Alain Bouchard Built the Couche-Tard & Circle K Convenience Store Empire. Guy Gendron, Juniper Publishing

***

Alain Bouchard was just entering adolescence when the Maîtres chez nous battle was shaking Quebec.

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He was facing more pressing problems in his own life. He still has heartbreaking memories of visits to the Saint-Michel-Archange psychiatric hospital in Quebec City, where his mother was held for two years, and where she was given "care" in the form of ice baths. When that treatment failed to cure her depression, the doctors considered giving her a lobotomy; she barely escaped the treatment. Each of Alain's visits were the same, and ended with her pleading. "She would say, 'Alain, get me out of here.'" He had to explain that there was nothing he could do, that he would love to bring her home with him but that he didn't have the authority to discharge her from the hospital. When he returned home, he would beg his father, trying to convince him that the children could take care of her far better than the so-called doctors at Saint-Michel-Archange.

But it was impossible. The father knew full well that he couldn't bring his wife into their mobile home, pushing their number to eight, only to abandon her for months when he went off to a work site. It would just pull them all back into the nightmare they had lived through before.

The lives of the Bouchard children were structured as well as could be with a mother in the hospital and an absent father. During his brief stays back home, Jean-Paul Bouchard would take them on an activity that left a deep impression. After they piled into his old car, the family embarked on driving tours of businesses of the region: garages, hardware stores, restaurants, trailer parks. Jean-Paul nurtured a single dream in his heart: to enter the business world once again. His children, brought along on these strange adventures, would see first-hand his yearning to find his way back to that road, that pathway to restoring his dignity.

The unusual team would disembark, arrive unannounced abruptly and begin to examine the premises and question the owner about his or her revenue, traffic levels, the price of rent, inventory, employees and their wages, profit margins and sales prices. Then their father, who had only a third-grade education and had trouble with basic math, would turn to his son Alain. "He would say, 'Alain, do the totals,'" Alain Bouchard recalls. Though the boy was just 12 years old, his father was conferring on him, symbolically at least, the responsibility of understanding the workings of a business, of identifying ways to alter the variables and increase profits. The task became deeply connected with having enough food on the table, restoring his father's honour and lifting his mother's spirits. It was the dream of returning to the life they had led before the tragedy. It would be hard to overstate the invisible weight carried by this exercise of mental calculation or the profound impression it would make on him.

Jean-Paul Bouchard wanted to get his life back on track; what he ended up doing instead was laying a path for his children: "He put it into our heads that it was better to work for yourself. We all took that in." Each of them would later become an entrepreneur, his or her own boss. But none would match the success of Alain Bouchard, who, 50 years later, would be one of the richest businessman in Quebec. His father, however, had predicted a different destiny for him. "He told me, 'You're going to be my engineer.' He wanted me to become an engineer because he had always worked on construction sites."

In Jean-Paul Bouchard's world, engineers were the most educated people; the ones who gave the orders. Moreover, their future was secure, thanks to the great increase of hydroelectric, mining and industrial sites on Quebec's North Shore.

***

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Jean-Paul Bouchard hadn't taken mechanical courses. He had learned his trade by himself while repairing the fleet of vehicles for his road construction company. He may have lacked a diploma, but he had made a name for himself and built a reputation as a dedicated and tireless worker. It allowed him to obtain a good position at Hydro-Québec, doing maintenance and repairs on hydraulic machinery at various "Manic" work sites.

The new job forced the family to move even farther north, to Micoua, a temporary work camp established in the middle of the forest along highway 138, which connected Manic-2 and Manic-5. The improvised village, doomed to vanish when work was finished, housed several hundred workers who stayed in basic trailers, often with their families.

Micoua had no main road, and its only commerce was a grocery store that resembled a general store. Nonetheless, Alain Bouchard says it was a pleasant place to stay. Life was simple, and carried a sense of freedom. "I loved it. I discovered fishing and nature," he says. It was while the family was living there that his mother's long exile finally came to an end and she was able to return to the fold.

Conversely, this was also the moment when the oldest children had to leave for months at a time to study away from home, since there were no high schools nearby. And so, at the age of 15, Alain Bouchard went to study at Monseigneur-Taché school in Rivière-du-Loup, on the South shore of the St. Lawrence River, a few hundred kilometres from Micoua. He stayed in Foyer-Patro, a boarding school run by priests. Still, these were good years for him; he enjoyed the curriculum. When classes ended in June, he returned to Micoua, where he took his first steps into the depanneur trade.

His mother had found an ingenious way to help make ends meet: Every morning she made sandwiches that her son, Alain, would sell to the workers at nearby sites. They also offered sodas, which they bought at wholesale prices so they could maximize profits. Alain's first two summers in Micoua were therefore divided between this work in the morning, and spending the afternoons fishing with his friends in the well-stocked rivers of the region.

Although they lived at a distance from the modern world, the boys were not cut off entirely. Chubby Checker brought the world the twist. Elvis Presley brought rock 'n' roll. The Beatles arrived in North America and brought their pop songs. Their driving beat was propelled by the group's drummer Ringo Starr. Envisioning himself in the same role, Alain Bouchard bought a drum kit. He also dipped further into his savings to fund his friends so they, too, could buy instruments. Alas, the musical endeavour proved to be short-lived.

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At the age of 16, he took a more stable summer job at a general store at one of the hydroelectric sites. It sold everything, from groceries to clothes to guns. It was an enviable position for a student, but Alain Bouchard felt it couldn't last. He still hadn't completed his preparatory courses for post-high school studies; but what was the point of taking them? His father wanted him to become an engineer, but he didn't have the money to enrol in university. As for his own wishes, Alain Bouchard would have liked to study management or business—but that seemed like just another crazy idea. So what, then? A job working on construction sites? Everyone in his social group dreamed of working for Hydro-Québec. He didn't share their dream. "I knew there was no future for me on the North Shore. Above all, I wanted to start my own business. That was the only thing on my mind. I told myself, I'm going to go to Montreal, I'm going to make a lot of money and I'm going to start my own business." In short: all he had to do was invent his life.

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