Being the first employee hired by a start-up company that ended up being truly successful worldwide is a rare thing.
And more so when it comes to Alimentation Couche-Tard, which has become the largest Canadian company of all time with $60B in annual revenue, 16,000 stores and 125,000 employees!
But Couche-Tard was at some point a very small venture and this is when Diane Leroux-Rondeau, a recently married secretary looking for a new professional challenge, entered the scene.
In 1985, this dynamic 25-year-old woman, friendly and joyful, had the incredible luck of being hired as secretary for what was to become Couche-Tard at their first Laval office and thus, to work on a daily basis, and for five years, at the heart of the most talented entrepreneurial group in Canadian history, who together will achieve phenomenal success across the globe.
Today in her 50s and living in St-Liguori, a small village near Joliette, Quebec, she feels very proud to have been sitting at the front row of the creation of an international empire.
With candor and transparency, Diane Leroux-Rondeau agreed to share some memories of her five years in Couche-Tard’s childhood and to share a few souvenirs with DepQuébec.
This unique and first-hand testimony depicts the management style that reigned in the heart of a conglomerate embryo in its infancy, counting at most only twenty stores at the time.
INTERVIEW WITH DIANE LEROUX-RONDEAU, COUCHE-TARD INC. FIRST EVER EMPLOYEE
DepQc: Diane, what led you to start working at Couche-Tard headquarters in 1985?
DLR: Ah, that’s really something. At the time I used to work at the Royal Trust Bank in Laval but I was getting bored and looking for another job. I came across an ad from them, looking for a secretary. It was a new company and I thought it was perfect for me. I wanted to do something different than working in a bank. I was a perfect fit for the position since I had experience and secretarial training.
DepQc: So you were already working in Laval and looking for a job in the area.
DLR: Yes. The Couche-Tard office was at 1600 boul. Saint-Martin in Laval. I went there and had an interview with Richard Fortin and Alain Bouchard, who came in at the end. It went very well. I was told that I would get some feedback in a week, but finally, nothing. So I called back Richard Fortin after a week and said, “Well, I had an interview a week ago, I expected to hear from you and nobody called me.” He replied: “Yes, indeed, hold on a minute.”
“Then, he left me waiting on the line, came back and said:” Well, finally, you know what? We’d like to hire you.” So I said,” Oh really? that’s great, thanks a lot!” Later on, I learned that there were two good candidates for the position and they did not know which one to choose, but since I called back that day and shown genuine interest, it convinced them to hire me. ” — Diane Leroux-Rondeau
DepQc: That’s a good one!
DLR: This has been a true lesson in my life. I often tell those who lack confidence to go on and call back! Don’t hesitate to show how much you are interested. You’ll see, it could be a real opportunity for you.
DepQc: And how did it go when you started?
DLR: Awful. I was so nervous the first day that I fell down on the floor, knocking my head! I had to wear sunglasses for a week to hide my two black eyes (laughs). But after that incident, everything went well.
ALONE WITH THE FIRST THREE FOUNDERS
DepQc: So we are in 1985, the year Couche-Tard made its first major acquisition, 11 convenience stores in Quebec City named ‘Couche-Tard’. Did you arrive just before that?
DLR: When I came in, there were only 17 depanneurs, I remember it very well.
DepQc: So it was just before. How many were you in the office, in all?
DLR: We were just us. The three bosses, the two spouses and me. Alain Bouchard’s wife trained me at the beginning and then at some point, she left.
“There was Alain Bouchard, Richard Fortin and Jacques d’Amours.” Bouchard’s ex-wife worked at the office as a part-time secretary while Jacques d’Amours’ wife, Claudine, was in charge of accounting. That’s all.”— Diane Leroux-Rondeau
DepQc: Unbelievable! You were the first person from the outside to work with the core team of Couche-Tard founders.
DLR: Yes. There were of course also franchisees, but that was it.
DepQc: Réal Plourde was not there yet in 1985?
DLR: No. He started working at the office later on. In 1987 I would say, but he was not there at the beginning.
Editor’s note: Réal Plourde became a partner of the company in 1984 and according to Ms. Leroux-Rondeau’s recollections, he did not join the head office as a full time employee until a few years later.
PROMOTED SECRETARY OF ALAIN BOUCHARD
DepQc: And what did you do as a job?
DLR: I did customer service, internal work, letters, correspondance to send. Answering the phone, receptionist, pretty much all that.
DepQc: But you quickly got promoted, becoming an executive secretary.
DLR: Yes, exactly. Before long I became Alain Bouchard’s executive secretary. I attended meetings, prepared minutes, a bit like that. While I was there, they acquired Perrette, la Maisonnée, Réal Plourde came in, the company grew up steadily.
DepQc: Have you been Alain Bouchard’s assistant for a long time?
DLR: Yes, all the while I was there.
DepQc: What was it like working with him at that time?
DLR: Ah, it was great. A really nice man, respectful, listening to his employees. In terms of employees, there was pretty much just me at the time, not too many people (laughs). But he’s a really laid-back, thoughtful and kind type of person.
DepQc: Did you work long hours?
DLR: I worked from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. I did not have to work overtime.
DepQc: Did you have a good relationship with Alain Bouchard?
DLR: Yes! I remember that at one point in October, I organized a surprise party for my husband’s 30th birthday. When he asked me as a joke why he was not on the guest list, I told him that the event was not suitable to seniors, which made him laugh! There was a nice atmosphere in the office, always very friendly.
Editor’s note: The first three founders were objectively quite young at the time. In 1985, Alain Bouchard and Richard Fortin were 36 years old while Jacques d’Amours was only 28. As for Diane Leroux-Rondeau, she was only 25 years old when she started.
COUCHE-TARD’S RAPID GROWTH
DepQc: When you came in, there were just five of you, but when you left, five years later, there had to be a lot more, right?
DLR: Yes, absolutely. We were a lot more, around twenty people. Offices had been added, operations managers, a receptionist. When I left, Couche-Tard had about 200-300 stores.
DepQc: How do you feel about knowing today that your former bosses have all become billionaires?
DLR: Oh really, I’m happy for them.
“They started from scratch, they worked so hard to get to where they are, they were really hands-on about their business. It was not always easy with the franchisees, many were sometimes dissatisfied. I usually left office at 5 PM but they often stayed until later in the evening.” — Diane Leroux-Rondeau
DepQc: Were you there when Couche-Tard started to be traded on the stock exchange?
DLR: I was there, and I too had invested, I had stocks on the stock exchange. But I did not keep them, I sold them when I left. I’m not too knowledgeable in these things, so I preferred to get rid of them.
DepQc: How did you feel about Couche-Tard’s ongoing success after you left in 1990?
DLR: I am really proud. I like to think that I was there in the very beginning, as the first secretary of the company. In fact, the first secretary was the former wife of Alain Bouchard, but she was his wife, while I was the first secretary hired from the outside.
COUCHE-TARD’S FIRST OFFICE EMPLOYEE EVER
DepQc: Not only the first secretary, but also the first office employee in the history of Couche-Tard, period.
DLR: Yes, really. Because there was no one else, and that was all.
DepQc: Diane, do you realize that you were the first employee of a company that today employs 125,000 people?
DLR: It’s quite special when you think of it. Of course there were convenience stores staffed with employees already, but I am the first office employee for sure.
DepQc: Why do you think Couche-Tard has done so well? Is it mainly due to the qualities of Alain Bouchard and his associates?
DLR: I think the four together, they form a great team. Alain Bouchard was the leader, Jacques d’Amours and Réal Plourde were in charge of operations and Richard Fortin was taking care of finances.
DepQc: And since you left in 1990, you’ve seen them once, is that right?
DLR: Yes. Once, about 20 years ago, I paid them a visit. I showed up at the reception desk — not the same anymore: they occupied two or three floors of the building where I used to work — introduced myself and asked to meet Alain Bouchard, adding that I used to work here and that I would like to see him. Upon hearing my name, he came out of his office to greet me and we spent a good 15-20 minutes talking. I went to see Richard Fortin and said hello to Réal Plourde.
DepQc: Do you realize that you are one of the very few people who have worked in the early days of a start-up that has become a global giant afterwards?
DLR: It impresses me a lot that they went that far, but here again, it does not surprise me either, because they form such a good team.
DepQc: And you have kept an excellent souvenir of your former boss?
DLR: Alain Bouchard has always been very friendly: he knew what he wanted and he had a lot of marketing ideas. When things were not aligned his way, he would say so of course, as Richard Fortin. Jacques d’Amours was more of an introvert. As for myself, I have always been well treated and highly respected.
LEAVING IN 1990 WHILE COUCHE-TARD WAS IN FULL SWING
DepQc: Why did you leave then, in 1990?
DLR: I left because I got pregnant with my second child and wanted to stop working to devote my time to my kids. In addition, we moved nearby Joliette that year to get closer to my husband’s workplace and it would have been quite demanding to commute from there.
DepQc: Were they disappointed to see you leave?
DLR: I think so. They organized a big shower party and since I was pregnant, they gave me a lounge chair. I was so happy!
DepQc: Knowing Alain Bouchard, he would have probably kept you close to him for a long time should have you stayed. You could have had a great career!
DLR: That’s right, but let’s say I was somewhere else in my life and they understood it well. I admire them for that because yes, I’m sure they would have kept me. As the French saying goes: who takes husband takes country! I followed my man and I do not regret anything!
DepQc: So you chose love and family over career, success and money?
DLR: Must have! As they say, money can’t buy happiness! But I found happiness in the countryside with my husband and my children and now with my grandchildren of whom I am very proud. And besides, I’m the top secretary at my job (three minutes from home) and I’ve been there for 20 years!
DepQc: Diane Leroux-Rondeau, thank you for this inspiring testimony.
DLR: You’re welcome.