In Canada, Couche-Tard looks to Norway for guidance on electric cars

Alimentation Couche-Tard, one of the largest fuel retailers in Canada, is looking to Norway for guidance on how to adapt to growing electric car sales, a trend that some investors fear could threaten its current raison d'être.

The Quebec-based convenience store company, which established a foothold in the Scandinavian country five years ago with its purchase of Statoil ASA's fuel and retail operations, says it wants to ensure it will still appeal to customers if they no longer need to fill up on gasoline.

"We'll look at Norway as a laboratory to the future," CEO Brian Hannasch said during an earnings conference call earlier this month. "We're very much engaged to see how we can win there."

When it comes to embracing electric vehicles, Norwegians are in a class of their own. In a country of about five million people, there are about 120,000 full-electric or plug-in hybrid automobiles on the road — a per capita ownership ratio 23 times larger than in Canada.

About 43 per cent of all auto sales in Norway last month were for electric vehicles. In Canada, that figure was less than one per cent.

Still, if Canadians ever do take up electric vehicles in large numbers, that could spell doom for service station operators if their business models don't evolve.

Couche-Tard relied on fuel to deliver 40 per cent of its gross profits and 69 per cent of its revenues in its last fiscal year.

It did not return repeated requests for information on whether it has any charging stations in Canada. But according to Flo, which runs a network of charging stations, Couche-Tard has at least 15 of them.

While it takes just a few minutes to fill up on petrol or deisel, it can take anywhere from half an hour to several hours to fully charge an electric vehicle, which raises a question: will Canadians want to charge their cars the same way they buy gas and what does that mean for Couche-Tard and other similar businesses?