Growing east

The countdown is on, as B.C.-based Canco prepares to debut its 100th site.
Canco gas station at night

The team at Canco Petroleum Ld. is gearing up for June 29. Almost daily, since March 2, the company’s Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram have featured colourful images of its many locations across Canada. From the smiling face of a location manager at 228 Tranquille Rd. in Kamloops, B.C., to a yard of ruby-red tractors behind a clean forecourt in Wynyard, Sask., the photos have one thing in common: the proud blue-and-orange colours and maple leaf of Canco’s logo.

“We’re doing a countdown to site 100,” Rob Laing, director of operations at Canco, says in an exclusive interview with OCTANE.

For the next few weeks, the team at Canco will share photos of locations across Canada and on June 29 will unveil its 100th branded Canco gas station. Its location? Top secret says Laing—we’ll have to wait and see. What is guaranteed is that June 29 will become the inaugural Canco Day—a new initiative for the entire team, location managers, and Canco’s network of independent operators to celebrate Canco’s customers, its expansion across the country and the blue-and-orange colours of Canco’s logo. 

In the span of seven short years, Canco’s bullish growth has stretched that bright blue-and-orange logo east into Ontario, where the company has been working with Fuel Partners on business development in the province for three years. Over the past couple of months Canco’s built two new locations in the Greater Toronto Area: one in North York and another in Brampton. They join 14 sites across the province: Sarnia, Grand Bend, Mitchell, Clinton, Exeter, London, St. Thomas, Fonthill, Grimsby, Hamilton, Collingwood, Nipissing, Mission and Terrace Bay. 

“Most of those are corporate stores,” says Laing, “but the dealer opportunity is quite massive in Ontario.”

Across the country, corporate-owned stores make up about 90% of Canco’s portfolio, but, as Laing sees it, independent dealers are catching onto the privileges Canco offers. These include high-quality fuel, sourced directly from major fuel refineries and terminals in Canada; support and training; and access to Canco’s network of suppliers and distributors, along with a company that will negotiate for them.

“We think that there’s an appetite out there for people who are tired of working with the traditional big brands to try something new working with a group that is young and hungry and not publicly traded,” says Laing.

Canco gas station with mountains in the background

Humble beginnings

Canco’s origin story began with two independent dealers and a desire to do things differently. 

Parmjeet Singh Sehgal and Ravinder Nijjar were working as gas jockeys, saving up enough money to buy their own c-gas site in Kamloops, B.C. That was more than 15 years ago; from there the two gas-jockeys-turned-dealers amassed enough money to buy a second store.

Owning and operating two locations under a well-known banner gave the duo insights into what makes a gas station successful.

“They understood that customers are number one and were really able to leverage the relationships that they built along the way; to a point where they really knew the store inside and out, and what made the store fundamentally successful,” says Laing.

By leveraging their relationships with the terminals that were supplying the fuel they were selling, the two found out that they were able to purchase their fuel directly from the terminals. When their fuel-supply agreements expired, Sehgal and Nijjar decided it was time to make a move and launched their own brand.

“We discovered that we have the ability to pick up from those same terminals, and of course, we have to pay the shipping fee, but we get to actually capture some of that profit,” says Laing. “So, we rebranded our first site in Kamloops.”

Canco station storefront

Kamloops is in British Columbia’s interior. The city is situated on the banks of the North and South Thompson rivers. On one side, the city stretches across the two rivers’ shorelines, with the steep hills of the Montane Cordillera Mountain range looming overhead. According to the 2021 census, 97,902 people call Kamloops home. Among them are the cougars and bears that inhabit the British Columbia Wildlife Park just east of town. The city calls itself Canada’s Tournament Capital and, according to the city’s tourism board, it hosts more than 100 tournaments each year at its world-class sports facilities. Like the predators that inhabit its park, athletes come for a chance to compete: a chance to make a name for themselves, because for some, survival is not enough.

It may be a coincidence that two gas jockeys from Canada’s tournament capital decided to disrupt the gas industry’s status quo, or perhaps the spirit of competition inspired them to do things their way—first in Kamloops, then across the country.

That first Canco-branded site opened in 2016. To this day, the independent chain of gas stations bills itself as a “bold alternative to big-box retailers” and takes pride in purchasing directly from major fuel refineries and terminals in Canada.

Building a network of dealers

“Staying independent allows us to share some of the profits we save on purchasing fuel with our dealers. It allows us to reinvest that money into the company and target those dealers that are hungry for change,” says Laing.

One of those people is Nik Vischschraper, manager, facilities and operations for the Splatsin Development Corporation, which  manages the economic interests of the Splatsinac First Nation. He oversees Quilakwa Investments, which operates the Quilakwa Canco in Enderby, B.C.

Following an accident last year at the well-established site—a transport truck hit the gas canopy, pushing them to undertake extensive renovations—the group saw it as an opportunity for a fresh start.

“We shopped around and Canco came out ahead in terms of fuel pricing,” says Vischschraper, adding Canco assisted with the forecourt renovation.

Canco Quilakwa location
Canco Quilakwa location

The four-month process, which began in October 2022, revamped the entire configuration of the Enderby site, which reopened in February. 

“Canco helped us realign the gas pumps into a more practical configuration, added an extra pump and an extra-large storage tank underground,” says Vischschraper of the full-service site that now features an air-conditioned kiosk for its gas jockeys. 

In addition, the renovated site now has 10 fuel pumps (six contain diesel); a c-store with a Chester’s chicken franchise and Tim Hortons; and a new gas canopy that features both the Quilakwa and Canco logos. The site further sets itself apart with an Indigenous gift gallery, fireworks and other special offerings.

“Even though they offered so much for our c-store, they still gave us the freedom to merchandise the store how we wanted,” Vischschraper says of the partnership.

Competitive edge

In addition, dealers can take advantage of Canco’s Edge program to leverage the buying power of the Canco group and negotiate prices with vendors. “Instead of a single site negotiating with the size of its store, one of our independent dealers can negotiate using the entire network’s volume. Or we will negotiate for them at a corporate level,” explains Laing, adding members are able to take advantage of preferred pricing, as well as extensive rebate programs.

The Edge program enabled the Quilakwa team to negotiate better prices with Frito-Lay, and begin new relationships with wholesalers like Gordon Food Service and Sysco Corp.

Canco’s agreements with Chester’s Chicken and Tim Hortons provide many of its c-stores with a valuable foodservice offering that includes made-to-order fried chicken, coffee and other treats.

In addition, Canco’s Chillerz program offers slushies, while its comprehensive foodservice program includes everything from hot breakfast sandwiches to fresh fruits and salads.

In Ontario, one of Canco’s new sites—4901 Steeles Ave. West. In North York—features a c-store and full forecourt, as well as Tim Hortons. The location is just a few months old, but already there are plans to expand the foodservice offering there.

“We’re negotiating with a quick service restaurant that is going to be partnering with us at that location,” says Laing.

Food is increasingly part of the company’s DNA. In January 2021, it opened its first grocery store—Canco Supermarket—in Saltair, B.C., where customers can buy fresh produce, deli, hot food, coffee, Chillerz and more.

For customers that prefer their food items delivered, Laing says the company is leveraging local food-delivery services like DoorDash and Skip the Dishes.

Canco station rendering/photo

Cultivating loyalty

The company’s loyalty program—Canco Cash—is a valuable tool that Vivek Kumar, who manages the new corporate store in Brampton, Ont., uses to attract and retain customers. The cashback program offers customers two cents per litre, 2% cashback on in-store purchases and 1% cashback on lottery tickets.

Kumar, who began his career with Canco in 2016 as a cashier in Kamloops, says the Brampton site is just a few months old, but is already building a strong reputation in the community.

“People have been coming here to save on gas prices, once they are here, we make sure to give them the best customer service,” says Kumar, adding Brampton often has one of the lowest prices on GasBuddy—an app that helps customers find the cheapest gas stations—and strong Google reviews have helped make the store credible in the community.

Stories like Kumar’s are ones that Canco strives to see more often, says Laing. “The idea is to build a structure where there are aspirations to grow within the company. So, you can start as a store manager and from there you can work your way to becoming a regional manager, who can help coach and develop other managers.”

Right now, the bright blue-and-orange Canco’s logo is spread thin across the GTA but sends strong signals about Canco’s bullish expansion outside of British Columbia. Laing says that there’s a strong desire to move directly into Toronto, where large, national- and multinational dominate the market. For a lone independent, the competition might be too tough, but for Canco, Toronto may be just another city of tournaments.

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