The Multipliers

Whether by acquisitions or new store construction, these chains lead the industry in expansion

For some players in the convenience store industry, growth is a matter of opportunity. If the right site catches their eye or they hear of an enticing acquisition possibility, they’ll move on it. For others, though, growth is a matter of attack. These retailers employ teams of people whose job it is to pore over population data, target emerging markets for expansion and scoop up properties before anyone else can get to them.

By means of acquisitions, new store construction — or in the case of the oil companies, extending their branded wholesale network — these operators make growth a part of their DNA.

In this special report, Convenience Store News highlights the industry's Top 20 Growth Chains. Partnering with Nielsen TDLinx, we've identified those c-store companies (21 in all due to a tie) that added the most convenience stores between December 2010 and December

7-Eleven, the c-store industry's largest retail chain, was also its fastest growing. The Dallas-based company added more than 520 net new stores for a 7.9-percent increase in its store base. In terms of having the biggest percentage increase, that honor goes to another Texas-based retailer, Fikes Wholesale. The parent company of CEFCO Convenience Stores, headquartered in Temple, achieved a 57.6-percent increase in its store count by adding 72 locations.

Guess the old saying is true: they do grow them bigger in Texas.

No. 1: 7-Eleven Inc.

7-Eleven, the convenience industry's largest retail chain, was also its fastest growing last year. The Dallas-based company added more than 520 net stores from December 2010 to December 2011 for a 7.9-percent increase.

As operator of more than 7,100 stores in the United States, 7-Eleven put more distance between itself and the rest of the industry, adding more than three times the number of stores than the next fastest-growing c-store chain.

7-Eleven's growth in the past year was considerably higher than in previous years, according to a company spokesperson. The vast majority of the new stores were filling in existing markets.

"Our key development markets are many, and include the greater New York City area, metro Washington, D.C., central and western Florida, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, southern California, the San Francisco area, Portland and Seattle, as well as British Columbia," said the spokesperson.

Of the new units added during 2011, approximately 360 were acquired, while more than 250 stores were built, leased, relocated or converted through the company's Business Conversion Program.

The 7-Eleven Business Conversion Program allows property owners to keep control of their real estate while taking advantage of the 7-Eleven business system. It does not include fuel and differs from a conventional 7-Eleven franchise where 7-Eleven owns/ leases the building and turns over operation of the store to a franchise.

One of 7-Eleven's most noteworthy acquisitions of the past year was its purchase of 188 Wilson Farms stores in western New York State in June.

The retailer continues to refine its store format and look. Several of the new stores are considered "new looks" — not totally revamped, but they might have different kinds of floors, walls, counters or coffee bars.

The 7-Eleven spokesperson told CSNews that the retailer will continue to pursue growth opportunities in both existing and new markets going forward, as evidenced by its January acquisitions of 51 ExxonMobil sites in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and 55 Sam's Mart stores in the Carolinas, in separate deals.

— Don Longo

NO. 2: Shell Oil/Motiva Enterprises LLC

As a longtime leading industry brand, it's no surprise that Shell landed at No. 2 on the Top 20 Growth Chains list, but it's a testament to the company's commitment to expansion that it still had the room to grow so much in 2011. Shell Oil/Motiva Enterprises LLC added 167 stores from December 2010 to December 2011 for a 3.5-percent increase, and it has no plans to slow down.

"Shell has seen a period of unprecedented growth over the last three years," said Elen Phillips, vice president, Fuels Sales & Marketing Americas. "The past year was especially good for new build Shell-branded sites, with a 7-percent increase over 2010 Shell-branded new build figures."

Phillips cited the continued popularity of Shell Nitrogen Enriched Gasolines and Shell V-Power premium gasoline

as a reason for the company's successful growth year, along with its rewards program, which the chain expects to extend across the United States in 2012.

"Combined with our No. 1 consumer and commercial card deck, and the convenient locations and offerings through our wholesalers, it has been a win-win for our consumers," she said.

Shell's new builds last year varied in design in order to meet customers' needs. "The concepts vary, but most are building large footprints to optimize traffic flow and promote multiple consumer offerings, such as loyalty programs, car washes, fresh food in some cases, QSRs [quick-service restaurants], etc., to meet the needs of the local market," Phillips explained.

Additionally, three new county-level entry points were added in the past year: La Porte, Ind.; Meade, Ky.; and Southampton, Va.

If Shell has its way, the growth will continue this year. "In 2012, Shell will continue to create value and growth for our wholesalers by driving more traffic to their sites and delivering new, innovative products and programs that generate brand-loyal consumers," said Phillips.

— Angela Hanson

No.3:Sunoco Inc

Sunoco grabbed headlines this past September when it revealed plans to exit the refining business. The move came as executives decided to refocus the company's energies on those parts of the business that deliver value to its shareholders: retail and logistics. On March 1, one of those executives — chairman and CEO Lynn Elsenhans — resigned and will be replaced by CFO Brian MacDonald.

The retail focus makes sense since Sunoco — and its APlus, Coastal and Optima brands — landed in the No. 3 spot on the Top 20 Growth Chains ranking. From December 2010 through December 2011, Sunoco added 122 stores to its lineup, registering a 6.6-percent increase. In total, Sunoco's store count now stands at 1,975 with 368 corporate stores and 1,607 franchisee/licensee stores.

In announcing the company's strategic review on Sept. 6, Elsenhans said Sunoco determined it's in the best interest of the shareholders to invest its capital resources in the retail and logistics businesses, which have higher returns, gross potential and provide steady ratable cash flow.

"We plan to conduct a comprehensive strategic review to determine the best way to deliver value to shareholders, including how to best utilize the company's strong cash position and maximize the potential for Sunoco logistics and retail businesses," Elsenhans said at the time.

In addition to adding more units, Sunoco is also expanding the in-store offering at its existing APlus locations. This summer, the company launched the Craft Beer Exchange program at 12 APlus stores in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. Since then, the company has twice announced expansions of its craft beer initiative, which is currently offered at roughly 50 APlus stores. Aside from Buffalo, consumers in Rochester, Albany, Allegheny, Essex, Monroe, Livingston, Lewis, Onondaga, Oneida and St. Lawrence counties, N.Y., can now purchase 64-ounce growlers or six-packs of microbrew beer on tap.

— Melissa Kress

No. 4: Casey's General Stores Inc.

Through a combination of acquisitions and new builds, Casey's General Stores added 106 stores during its 2011 fiscal year, which ended April 30. The 6.9-percent increase not only exceeded the company's stated goal to boost its store base by 4 to 6 percent, but also nearly doubled the 3.6-percent growth achieved by the Ankeny, Iowa-based chain during the prior fiscal year.

Casey's CFO Bill Walljasper told CSNews the company arrived at the 106-unit addition by acquiring 89 stores,

building 20 locations and closing three stores. The growth was dispersed throughout its marketing area, with the three largest growth states being Illinois, Kansas and Nebraska.

"We also opened stores in Arkansas and Oklahoma this past fiscal year," he said.

Casey's stated goal for fiscal 2012 is to increase its number of stores by another 4 to 6 percent. Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas are among the states in which the chain is looking to expand this fiscal year, and the retailer has said it will remain aggressive regarding acquisitions.

The c-store operator also continues to build new ground-up stores.

All new builds embody Casey's latest store design, which features greater retail floor space, additional cooler doors, larger kitchens offering made-to-order sub sandwiches, and enhanced coffee and fountain offerings.

"Also, we look to incorporate all of the features of the new store design into our acquired stores as part of their integration process," Walljasper noted.

— Linda Lisanti

No. 5 : Marathon Petroleum Corp.

Marathon Oil Co. started 2011 off with a bang, announcing that it would spin off its downstream business. By mid-year, the refining, marketing and transportation spinoff made its official debut as an independent and publicly traded company called Marathon Petroleum Corp. (MPC).

Fast forward six months and Marathon Petroleum closed out the year on a high note, claiming the No. 5 spot on the Top 20 Growth Chains list. According to TDLinx, Marathon Petroleum grew its portfolio 3.8 percent by adding 106 convenience stores between December 2010 and December 2011.

The company's total store count, at the end of 2011, stood at 2,904 with 1,536 corporate-owned sites operated under the Speedway banner and 1,368 franchisee/licensee sites.

Acquisitions are clearly on the company's radar. Speaking at Marathon Petroleum's investor conference on Nov. 30, Tony Kenney, president of MPC's convenience store division Speedway LLC, pointed out that the industry is "ripe for consolidation" with 63 percent of the c-stores in the United States run by single-store operators and 76 percent owned by chains of 50 locations or less.

"Smaller retailers may present some good opportunities," Kenney said. "The convenience store channel remains a viable business strategy. Industry sales and profits continue to grow. Consumers have shown a preference to shop the channel and it performs well over [all] economic cycles."

Over the past few years, the industry has seen major oil companies divesting their stores, but Kenney noted that Marathon Petroleum will not be one of them. "Unlike many major oil companies [that] have chosen to divest their retail [operations], MPC remains committed to owning and operating retail [locations]," he said. "We are firm believers in the incremental value that is provided by an integrated marketing model."

— Melissa Kress

NO. 6: Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (U.S. stores)

Alimentation Couche-Tard, the Laval, Quebec-based convenience store giant that operates 3,588 Circle K stores in the United States and is known for its acquisition appetite, added 100 net stores from December 2010 to December 2011 for a 2.9-percent increase in its unit count.

Although stymied in its unfriendly takeover attempt of Casey's General Stores in 2010, Couche-Tard made deals in the past year that will add more than 300 stores to its portfolio in 2011 and beyond.

Last summer, the company signed a pact to acquire 322 locations plus 65 reseller contracts in southern California from ExxonMobil. When the deal closes this year, the 72 company-owned stores will carry the Circle K flag and the entire network will become part of Circle K's West Coast Division, which will grow to a total of 228 company-operated stores and 315 dealer- or reseller-operated sites.

Around the same time last year, Couche-Tard's Mac's Convenience Stores subsidiary in Canada signed an agreement to acquire 26 company-operated locations in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region, and closed on five company-operated Gas City stores — one in Arizona and four in Chicago.

Later in the summer, Couche-Tard picked up 27 Jewel-Osco Fuel centers, primarily located in the Chicagoland area, from SuperValu. The retailer also made another deal with ExxonMobil to acquire 33 sites in Louisiana that will be added to the decentralized company's Circle K Gulf Division, bringing that division's total store count to 318.

Then, in the fall, Couche-Tard agreed to acquire 19 stores in Maine from Dead River Co., followed by the acquisition of 26 stores in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, from Chico Enterprises. The stores will be added to Circle K's Great Lakes Division, based in Akron, Ohio.

Finally, in late 2011, Circle K purchased 11 locations from Neighbors Stores in North Carolina.

— Don Longo

No. 7: Chevron Chevron's

ExtraMile convenience stores lived up to their name in 2011 by going the distance and adding 81 stores through both new builds and acquisitions, for a 2-percent increase in store count.

"ExtraMile's growth in 2011 was on par with our typical annual growth," said Ian Noble, retail district sales manager for the San Ramon, Calif.-based company. "We've been growing at a steady pace since [2007]."

That steady pace could soon pick up, though. At a media day in August, Colin Parfitt, president Americans Products West, told Convenience Store News that Chevron wants to double its number of franchisees by 2015. And if all goes well, new stores could reflect a new concept for the chain.

"We are exploring an exciting new concept for the ExtraMile chain," Noble said. "Although we aren't able to reveal additional details about the concept at this time, we look forward to sharing what we've been up to in a couple of months."

In 2011, 60 percent of ExtraMile's new stores were added by existing Chevron dealers, with 40 percent purchased from another c-store brand or built from the ground up. This year, rather than explore new areas, Chevron plans to pursue expansion within its existing markets.

"We have a strong retail presence on the West Coast and our goal is to continue growing a critical mass of ExtraMile stations, so they become an even more well-known retail offering," Noble said, adding that the chain's growth plans this year are focused on California, Oregon and Washington. "We're looking forward to adding new locations in 2012."

— Angela Hanson

No. 8: Valero Energy Corp.

Continued expansion of its branded wholesale locations led Valero to add 76 stores from December 2010 to December 2011 for a 4.5-percent increase in its overall store count. This landed the San Antonio-based retailer and refiner at No. 8 in our Top 20 Growth Chains.

Over the last year, Valero expanded its licensee/jobber network by moving into areas of the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions where the company did not have branded stores previously, according to Bill Day, executive director of media relations for Valero.

"The stores added were about on par with our recent growth," he said. "They typically consist of existing stores that sign up with Valero and are rebranded."

Valero is also adding a small number of new company-owned Corner Stores in its core markets, mostly in the Southwest, Day noted. These larger-format stores have an enhanced offering of foodservice items, including proprietary-branded prepared foods and snacks.

Another interesting aspect of the new Corner Stores is they feature a dispenser that offers E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that can be used by flex-fuel vehicles.

— Linda Lisanti

No. 9: Military

The five branches of the military are continuing to offer members and their families the comforts of home, regardless of where they are stationed, and those comforts include convenience stores.

The military increased its c-store count by 17.3 percent from December 2010 to December 2011, adding 74 stores. This increase brought its total store count to 501. The convenience stores in the military's portfolio include the Army Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), Coast Guard Mini Mart, Marine Corps Shoppette and NEXCOM Mini Mart (Navy).

Of the stores, the AAFES network is the largest — mainly because it encompasses two branches of the military. Last year, AAFES added 11 stores through new construction. Of those new builds, seven were in its Western Region, three in the Eastern Region and one in the Central Region.

Aside from adding new stores, AAFES expanded two stores (one in the Eastern Region, the other in the Western), renovated a store in the Western Region and activated a store in the Western Region.

AAFES has a comprehensive makeover of its locations underway, aimed at bringing all its sites under one corporate brand, the Exchange, and one c-store brand, Express, as CSNews reported in March 2011. Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma City was the first to undergo the transition. Other U.S. stores are to follow before AAFES moves the rebranding initiative to military installations in the Pacific and Europe.

— Melissa Kress

No. 10: Fikes Wholesale Inc.

Fikes Wholesale Inc., parent company of CEFCO Convenience Stores, saw its store count increase by 57.6 percent during the period of December 2010 to December 2011. That represents the largest percentage increase of any company in the convenience industry last year.

Temple, Texas-based Fikes added 72 stores during the timeframe, enough to earn the No. 10 ranking in our Top 20 Growth Chains. Its 2011 growth was higher than most typical years for the convenience store chain, Brett Giesick, CEFCO's chief retail officer, told CSNews.

Of the new stores Fikes added to its roster, 71 were acquisitions. The acquired stores represented new markets for chain, with the exception of two stores in Mississippi. East Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas all marked new entry points for the company, according to Giesick.

Although Fikes only built and subsequently opened one new store in 2011, that location is vitally important to the c-store retailer — the new build in Harker Heights, Texas, now serves as the chain's prototype store of the future. The location features an open, fresh design with modern treatments and upgraded finishes. In terms of product offering, the store has an enhanced hot beverages program that offers a multitude of syrups and toppings; the much-lauded CEFCO iced tea program; more than 60 varieties of craft and import beers; a full assortment of wines; and expanded frozen food and tobacco offerings.

This year, Fikes has already made one acquisition that's not far off from the total number of stores it added last year. In January, the company acquired 63 Taylor Food Mart Stores from Taylor Petroleum Co., increasing its store count to 257 across seven states.

Don't expect Fikes to stop there either. "This acquisition represents new entry points in west Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico," Giesick said. "We have expectations [to build] up to 10 organic locations this year, and are interested in acquisition opportunities that fit into our strategic growth plans."

— Brian Berk

No. 11: Landmark Industries Inc.

2011 was a strong year for Landmark Industries in regards to store growth. The convenience store chain, which primarily operates under the Timewise Food Stores banner, tacked on 70 units for a 45.2-percent increase, the second-largest percentage increase in the industry last year.

Houston-based Landmark's 2011 growth was larger than normal. "When you add 70 stores in a year, it's pretty significant," said Kevin Doody, marketing consultant for Timewise Food Stores. "But we actually did the same thing [in 2010]. We acquired 70 stores then as well. Our significant growth has come through acquisitions in the past three years."

All 70 of Landmark's newly added stores are in the Houston area. Acquisitions accounted for 60 of the locations added in the past year, while 10 were new builds, he said.

The 10 new sites Landmark built and opened represent its new prototype for the future. "For years, we had what we called the 'Country Store Concept,'" Doody told CSNews. "It looked like a country store and took on the image of the area we built it in."

The new builds have much more of an urban feel. "That's the pattern we are going with. That works well in greater Houston. The size of the store and high ceilings fit our marketing plan," he said. "The 10 new stores we're planning to build in 2012 will look that way. Our feeling about these stores is, 'If you build it, they will come.'"

Regarding 2012 acquisition plans, Doody said Landmark is "opportunistic."

Landmark is "opportunistic." "When we see opportunities where we operate, like Houston, San Antonio and Austin, we get very interested," he said. "But we're also not going to turn our back when it comes to other opportunities that present themselves around the country." Landmark now operates 220 c-stores.

— Brian Berk

No. 12: Cumberland Gulf Group

Cumberland Gulf Group, with locations carrying the Cumberland Farms and Gulf banners, started 2011 with 875 stores. Fast forward to December 2011 and its combined portfolio count stood at 922.

The addition of 47 stores, a 5.4-percent increase for the period between December 2010 and December 2011, landed the Framingham, Mass.-based company at No. 15 in our Top 20 Growth Chains.

With these recent store additions, Cumberland Gulf's locations now consist of 331 Gulf locations, with nine corporate stores and 322 franchisee/licensee stores, and 591 Cumberland Farms stores, with all of those being corporate stores.

Not only did the company grow its footprint in 2011, but it also thought outside the box with a drive-thru concept and a two-story Cumberland Farms location. The retailer began 2011 by testing the drive-thru concept at a store in Kingston, Mass. The store brings convenience to an all new level by allowing customers to order any of the 3,000-plus products from their cars. Cumberland Farms neared the end of 2011 by adding a second drive-thru location — this time in Worcester, Mass., in November.

The company is also in the process of adding a two-story location to its portfolio in 2012. Plans for the Marion, Mass., store were approved in May; construction is now underway and it is expected to open by Memorial Day. The extra floor space will be used for storage, not retail.

— Melissa Kress

No. 13: VPS Convenience Store Group

VPS Convenience Store Group, the Wilmington, N.C.-based affiliate of private investment firm Sun Capital Partners Inc., quietly added 40 stores from December 2010 to December 2011 for a 10.4-percent increase in unit count, according to TDLinx.

The retailer, which last year operated six store brands including Scotchman, Village Pantry, Li'l Cricket, Young's, Next Door Stores and Everyday Shops, added one Scotchman store in Charleston, S.C., 22 Scotchman sites in the Tri-Cities area of Tennessee and Virginia, and 17 Everyday Shops in Charlottesville, Va.

After merging the Village Pantry and Worsley Operating Corp. (Scotchman) in 2010, the new VPS Convenience Store Group appears poised to enter a new

growth phase. 2010 was spent consolidating the acquired convenience store companies. In 2011, the company expanded its presence in

the Charleston, S.C., market and initiated operations in Tennessee, two new states to the VPS footprint.

The chain acquired 22 former APPCO stores in northern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia in January 2011, followed by the purchase of 17 c-stores in western Virginia from Virginia Oil Co. in April.

"We are definitely on a path of aggressive growth and are looking forward to acquiring even more stores in the coming year," a VPS spokesperson told CSNews shortly after the company started 2012 off with a bang by acquiring seven Colonial Pantry convenience stores in central Illinois from Miller Oil Co. As reported first by CSNews Online in early January, the locations will operate as Village Pantry stores.

"We are very excited about the addition of the Colonial Pantry stores to the VPS group," VPS Chairman and CEO Jeff Turpin said at the time. "These sites align well with our brand philosophy of being convenient neighborhood stores with fast and friendly service, fresh food offerings and coffee. Customers can expect a seamless transition with no interruption in service as we integrate these locations into our VPS family of stores."

With this acquisition, VPS Convenience Store Group is comprised of 425 stores in eight states.

— Don Longo

No. 14: RaceTrac Petroleum

RaceTrac Petroleum, the Atlanta-based chain of more than 620 convenience stores, added 38 net stores between December 2010 and December 2011 for a 6.4-percent increase. Of the

stores added in 2011, all were new builds, bucking the industry trend toward mergers and acquisitions. Most of the stores filled in existing markets. "We added stores in each of our major markets, including Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Baton Rouge and Fort Lauderdale," said Allison Moran, senior vice president of the

RaceTrac division.

While this aggressive store expansion ranked the retailer No. 14 in our Top 20 Growth Chains, something else has the company's leaders even more amped up — the recent opening of its new 6,000-squarefoot store of the future.

"We're very pleased with our 2011 growth. But what has the team really excited is introducing our new 6000 design, and the 'wow' experience it brings to guests in our existing markets," Moran told CSNews.

Opened this January, the new Acworth, Ga., store is one-third larger than a typical store in the retailer's portfolio. According to reports, the store includes new offerings, such as free wireless Internet, indoor and outdoor seating, an expanded food and beverage menu, a frozen yogurt bar and a walk-in beer cave. Exterior stone columns and stacked-stone accents set this new store design apart from the company's traditional c-stores.

The new RT6K store, which is essentially the size of a mini-grocery store, has been called a prototype for RaceTrac's future convenience stores.

"The whole goal is to take you back to the idea of a neighborhood store vs. a traditional gas station," RaceTrac spokeswoman Sherri Scott told local media outlets. "We've made

our bread and butter over the years by offering people great gas at a value, and that's never going to change," Scott said. "But our audience has told us they want more of a convenience to them. Value is more than just a price. They want to be able to get gas, but also be able to pick up dinner, lunch, a snack or their paper."

— Don Longo

No. 15: ConocoPhillips

With so much going on at ConocoPhillips — namely a spinoff that will create a new downstream company, Phillips 66, which will serve as future parent of the company's convenience stores — one could forgive the company if it had a lack of store growth.

Despite the spinoff that company executives have said could take place as early as this May, ConocoPhillips still earned the No. 15 spot in our ranking. ConocoPhillips added 31 stores during 2011, a 2.5-percent increase over its 2010 store count, according to TDLinx.

The Houston-based company, now franchisor and licensee of 1,266 locations, operates no corporate stores.

However, even though the company has been repositioning itself since 2010 by selling its stake in Russian-based LUKOIL, retiring some of its debt and repurchasing its own shares, the stores it franchises and licenses remain an integral part of the company.

That philosophy is not expected to change once the stores come under the auspices of Phillips 66, an already well-known and well-trusted name in gas station and c-store history.

— Brian Berk

No. 16: Murphy Oil Corp.

Murphy Oil saw tremendous growth in the last year, adding 26 new company-owned stores from December 2010 to December 2011 for a 27.4-percent increase. If all goes as planned, that's just a start.

"We currently have 1,129 [stations] located in 23 states," said Angelos A. Lambis, vice president, operations support services. "After opening 29 stores in [full year] 2011, Murphy USA will continue to have an aggressive store growth plan as we move forward."

Earlier this year, Murphy stressed its commitment to "being a pioneer and early adopter of alternative fuels and green energy." The company backed up these words with action in the form of a partnership with diversified industrial manufacturer, Eaton Corp., aimed at demonstrating the benefits of electric vehicle charging at traditional gas stations.

Other 2011 standout initiatives for the c-store chain include MurPay, its proprietary payment system that allows customers to pay for fuel or merchandise via text message, and a joint venture with Vendgogh LLC to pilot gas-island vending at select Murphy USA stores in Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina.

Additionally, the company continued to show its embrace of technology and social media by teaming up with Foursquare to offer consumers discounts on gasoline when they check in at any of 1,000 Murphy USA gas stations. It has also posted a discount coupon on its Facebook page, and offers a free Cheap Gas Finder mobile app for iPhone and Android devices.

Murphy also showed its creativity and won an honorable mention in this year's Convenience Store News Store Design Contest for its Eugene, Ore., Murphy Express store in the Best Interior Design category.

Murphy's existing c-stores are spread across 23 states, a range that the company plans to capitalize upon as it continues to expand. "Almost all of our store growth has been organic, located in our core existing states," said Lambis.

— Angela Hanson

No. 17 (tie): Giant Industries Inc.

Giant Industries went big in the Southwest in 2011, adding 22 sites for a 17.1-percent jump in its store count. Rather than build new stores from the ground up, Giant's parent company Western Refining Inc. is focused on acquisitions, with the majority of its new stores added through leasing arrangements.

Although many retailers continue to struggle as a result of the still-shaky economy, this company managed to grow through a combination of luck and the knowledge of when and how to move forward.

"Western Refining's growth in the retail space in 2011 was driven by uniquely favorable market and financing opportunities that led to an environment that was conducive to growing our store base," said Gary Hanson, vice president, corporate communications. "As with any business, the decision to expand is based on an analysis of the return on opportunity."

Giant's main areas of growth were in Tucson, Ariz., where the company was able to expand upon an existing presence, and El Paso, Texas, a new market for its retail operations.

When it came to the new stores, the company stuck to what it knew, focusing on improving specific areas of the box rather than going for a total over-haul. "Our new-build locations were not a radical departure from our existing store model, but rather an enhancement to key attributes such as cooler and sales counter configurations," said Hanson.

To get customers in the door, Giant offers its Express Rewards program, through which customers can earn points for fuel discounts and enter to win gift cards and free gasoline.

— Angela Hanson

No. 17 (tie): Sheetz Inc.

Sheetz Inc. marked a growth milestone last year, opening its 400th convenience store in August. The Chambersburg, Pa., location was one of 22 stores the Altoona, Pa.-based chain added between December 2010 and December 2011 for a 5.7-percent increase in its portfolio.

Never one to shy away from expansion, Sheetz also announced ambitious plans in 2011 to reach 500 stores within the next three years. Roughly half of the company's existing c-stores are in its home state of Pennsylvania — one of the six states in which it operates — but the retailer has been expanding rapidly in North Carolina and West Virginia. This January, Sheetz opened its 35th location in North Carolina and its 38th in West Virginia.

Company leaders have said North Carolina is

its No. 1 market for growth. Going forward, some 40 percent of the chain's new stores are expected to open in The Tar Heel State, which Sheetz first entered in 2004. Plans are to build 10

new stores per year in North Carolina.

"We picked North Carolina because it has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country and the weather is mild most of the year. You also get a lot of long-distance commuters," Joe Sheetz, the company's executive vice president, explained in media reports last year.

Sheetz is targeting two corridors in North Carolina: a triangle of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point, and another triangle that includes Raleigh-Durham, Rocky Mount and Greenville. The c-store operator is extending into new areas of West Virginia as well, mainly the Charleston and Huntington markets.

To keep up with demand, Sheetz intends to open a large distribution center in North Carolina by 2014 to serve its burgeoning store base in that state, southern Virginia and West Virginia. Currently, all of the retailer's stores are served by its Pennsylvania facility.

— Linda Lisanti

No. 19: QuikTrip Corp.

QuikTrip has always been synonymous with growth, and that's never been truer than right now. The Tulsa, Okla.-based chain added 21 stores between December 2010 and December 2011 for a 3.7-percent increase in store count — and this year, its sights are set even higher.

"If everything goes the way we hope, we expect to open more stores this year than we ever have before," said Mike Thornbrugh, QuikTrip's manager of public and government affairs. Although he wouldn't divulge any specific numbers, he said "it will be substantial."QuikTrip actually opened 36 stores in 2011, including four scrap-and-rebuilds. But it also closed some locations and sold eight sites, resulting in the net 21-store addition. 2012 is off to a fast start for QT. As of January, QuikTrip had 44 stores under construction. The overwhelming majority of them are "Gen 3" stores, the retailer's newest store design.

Gen 3 stores are larger than QuikTrip's previous models, have multiple entrances and offer outdoor seating. Inside, customers find an expansive array of hot, cold and frozen dispensed beverages, along with a large selection of QT Kitchens single-serve and take-home prepared foods, plus a specialty beverage and soft-serve yogurt/ice cream bar staffed by associates.

Going forward, where it can, all new builds will be Gen 3, according to Thornbrugh.

Last year, five of the stores QuikTrip opened were Gen 3. To date, Thornbrugh said the new store model is either open or under construction in the following QT markets: Tulsa, Kansas City, Wichita, Iowa, Arizona, Dallas-Fort Worth and St. Louis.

The company is not only expanding in store size and count, but its operational footprint is growing, too. Currently, QuikTrip operates in 10 states, but that figure is set to increase to 11 when the company soon opens its first store in North Carolina. As of press time, the Charlotte location — also a Gen 3 store — was scheduled to open sometime this month.

As for why QT is experiencing such tremendous growth now, Thornbrugh simply said, "We're QuikTrip. We continuously try to improve, and new stores give us the opportunity to do that."

— Linda Lisanti

No. 20 (tie): Hess Corp.

Hess Corp. added 20 stores from December 2010 to December 2011, placing it 20th on our list (tied with Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores). These additions represent a 1.5-percent store count increase for the convenience store and petroleum retailer compared to the prior year.

New York City-based Hess, known for its kelly green logo, stuck to two areas of strength last year. Nearly all of the stores added were in Long Island, N.Y., and the Boston area, according to Rick Lawlor, vice president of retail marketing for Hess.

The chain's store growth last year was on par with prior years, Lawlor told CSNews. Of the 33 stores opened in 2011, nine were new properties; the others were rebuilds on existing sites. None of the stores erected in 2011 were characterized as a prototype location.

"Our 2011 builds were consistent with our distinctive Hess Express store design," he said.

As for this year, Lawlor noted, "We'd expect 2012 store growth to be in line with 2011."

Hess now owns and/or operates 1,361 stores, including those under the Wilco Hess banner.

— Brian Berk

No. 20 (tie): Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores

Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores had a busy year in 2011, adding 20 stores to its portfolio, according to TDLinx. That represents a 7.6-percent store count increase. Oklahoma City, Okla.-based Love's now operates more than 280 locations in 39 states.

One milestone in 2011 was Love's first compressed natural gas (CNG) pumps added to its Kingfisher, Okla., store. The chain plans to add CNG to 10 more locations this year.

Other 2012 objectives include remodeling projects designed to improve the accessibility and aesthetics of some of Love's older locations.

"We will continue to add Truck Tire Care Centers and services to keep our professional drivers safe on the road, and we will add bulk DEF to more of our travel stops," said Kyla Turner, communications manager at Love's. "Keep an eye out for new projects that will pop up in 2012 — we constantly look for innovative ways to better serve our professional drivers and motorists on the road."

— Brian Berk

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