November 25, 2008 / 5:25 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 3-Couche-Tard profit powers higher; eyes acquisitions

* Quarterly EPS $0.49 vs $0.26

* Revenue rises 30 percent to $4.57 billion

* U.S. fuel gross margin rose to 24.88 cents per gallon

* Shares fall 0.4 percent to C$13.64 (Adds analyst comments; in U.S. dollars unless noted)

By Scott Anderson

TORONTO, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Alimentation Couche-Tard (ATDb.TO) reported an 80 percent rise in quarterly profit on Tuesday, due mostly to higher gasoline margins in the United States, and said it was cautious about the deepening economic uncertainty.

The company, which has benefited from its aggressive acquisition strategy, also said it would continue to look for opportunities as companies become vulnerable under the weight of the slumping economy.

BMO Capital Markets analyst David Hartley said there were opportunities of varying sizes for Couche-Tard, which has a healthy balance sheet and plenty of cash on hand.

“It’s just a matter of time before other players have to fall out of the market and Couche-Tard has, in the past, feasted on the misfortunes of others by buying assets on the cheap and generating a huge amount of synergies from those assets,” Hartley said.

“The outlook looks better. We are still in challenging economic times. It is still going to challenge volumes and profit margins, but they are holding their own and there are not a lot of players in the retail world that say that,” he said.

Couche-Tard, North America’s second-biggest convenience store operator, which also operates a string of gas bars, said it earned $97.6 million, or 49 cents a share, in the second quarter, up from $54.2 million, or 26 cents a share, a year earlier.

The company, which operates under the Circle K banner in the United States and Mac’s in Canada, said revenue rose 30 percent to $4.57 billion from $3.5 billion.

Analysts had expected average earnings per share of 47 cents and revenue of $4.19 billion, according to Reuters Estimates.

Couche-Tard currently operates more than 5,400 convenience stores in Canada and the United States with some 3,600 of those featuring gas bars.

The company said fuel gross margin for the company-operated stores in the United States rose to 24.88 cents a gallon in the quarter, up from 13.04 cents a year earlier.

This was partly offset by a 10.6 percent dip in same-store fuel volumes due to supply problems, temporary store closures during hurricanes and general economic conditions.

In Canada, the margin fell to 4.66 Canadian cents a litre, compared with 5.06 Canadian cents in the second quarter of 2008, due to the rising cost of fuel.

Despite the results, Martin Landry, an analyst at Desjardins Securities in Montreal, downplayed the strong quarter.

“As expected, motor fuel margins came in strong and explain the exceptional year-over-year results,” Landry wrote in a note.

“We caution investors that the strong motor fuel margins reported today are not sustainable in the long term.”

Couche-Tard was also cautious about celebrating the results, noting that it “remained prepared” to deal with the slumping global economy, which has seen consumer confidence slip to multi-year lows.

Consumer confidence in Canada dropped in November to a 26-year low as global economic turmoil intensified, the Conference Board of Canada said on Monday.

The economic uncertainty is prompting consumers to watch discretionary spending and cut back on expenses such as vacations, leading to lower fuel demand.

Couche-Tard shares were down 0.4 percent at C$13.64 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

$1=$1.23 Canadian Reporting by Scott Anderson; editing by Rob Wilson

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