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Couche-Tard in talks with French grocer Carrefour about potential deal – The Globe and Mail



A person walks past a Couche-Tard in Montreal, May 21, 2020.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Canadian convenience store giant Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. says it has approached French grocer Carrefour SA with a view to striking a friendly transaction in what would be a significant shift in strategy for the Circle K brand owner.

Couche-Tard said in a statement late on Tuesday it has initiated “exploratory discussions” with Carrefour about a deal, the terms of which are still subject to discussion. At this stage, it is unclear whether the talks will result in an agreement or transaction, the company said. Carrefour also confirmed “very preliminary” discussions were under way.

The structure of a possible deal was not disclosed, but the discussions centre on Couche-Tard buying Carrefour in its entirety and divesting assets as necessary, said a person familiar with the matter. The Globe is not identifying the source as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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Taking over supermarket operator Carrefour would be a major bite for Couche-Tard to swallow. Carrefour shares have climbed 10 per cent in trading on the Paris Stock Exchange this year, pushing up the company’s market capitalization to 12.6 billion euros (about US$15.4-billion). Couche-Tard, one of Canada’s biggest companies by revenue, has a market value of $47-billion (US$36-billion).

It would also be a sharp turn in strategy for the Laval, Que.-based company and its chairman, Alain Bouchard. Couche-Tard has ballooned from a regional convenience store chain to a global titan through savvy acquisitions and organic growth. But it has focused almost exclusively on convenience stores and gas stations. Adding a grocery operator of this size would take it into largely uncharted territory, even if both businesses sell food.

Couche-Tard hasn’t made a major acquisition since buying Texas-based CST Brands for US$4.4-billion in 2017. But that hasn’t stopped it from looking.

Japan’s Seven & i Holdings Co., the world’s biggest convenience-store operator, agreed last fall to buy Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s Speedway chain for US$21-billion. Couche-Tard was also in the running for Speedway, a source with knowledge of the matter told The Globe and Mail, but apparently balked at the price, which values Speedway at 13.7 times earnings before taxes, depreciation and amortization.

Couche-Tard also made a non-binding, US$5.8-billion play for fuel retailer Caltex Australia Ltd., now known as Ampol, last year, but suspended the effort after the COVID-19 pandemic made Ampol’s prospects and cash flow uncertain. That situation hasn’t improved, and Couche-Tard now appears to have moved on.

More recently, Couche-Tard did a small but strategic acquisition in Hong Kong that it is betting will jump-start its future expansion in the region. The company in November agreed to buy Convenience Retail Asia Ltd. for roughly US$360-million.

While visibility “became cloudy” on the merits of a Ampol transaction, other deals will almost certainly present themselves, Couche-Tard chief executive officer Brian Hannasch told The Globe and Mail in May. Takeover multiples, which show what an investor is willing to pay per dollar of earnings, are just one element of a convenience store sector poised for transformation in the months ahead, he said at the time.

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“We’re sitting here with a good cash position. And if there are interesting assets or companies at the right price and the timing makes sense … we’re ready,” Mr. Hannasch said. He said the pandemic would open up new takeover opportunities.

Carrefour Group operates 12,300 stores of various sizes in more than 30 countries but is concentrated in Europe, where it runs 2,800 supermarkets and about 700 larger-scale hypermarkets. It also owns a network of smaller convenience stores with sales areas of 200 to 900 square metres under Proxi and other names. The company expects to open 3,000 convenience stores by 2022, according to its website.

Carrefour booked sales of 80.7 billion euros in 2019. It employs about 320,000 people.

“This would be a fixer-upper acquisition” for Couche-Tard, said Brian Madden, senior vice-president and portfolio manager with Toronto-based Goodreid Investment Counsel, which holds Couche-Tard shares. “Carrefour has been struggling for twenty years, and has never eclipsed its stock price high from the turn of the century. If Couche-Tard were to acquire the convenience stores on favourable terms though, I think the market would welcome the transaction.”

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Wattpad to be sold to South Korean internet giant for $600M US –



One of Canada’s most prominent technology darlings is being sold to a South Korean internet conglomerate in a $600 million US deal.

Toronto-based online storytelling company Wattpad said its board of directors unanimously approved a cash and stock transaction Tuesday that will see it acquired by Naver later this year. The company will retain its Canadian headquarters.

“This is the most important day in the history of the company and an incredible milestone,” said Allen Lau, one of Wattpad’s co-founders, in an interview.

“It is the beginning of a new chapter and using TV show terminology, this is episode one of season two, so I’m absolutely looking forward to this.”

Lau and Ivan Yuen, who will continue to lead Wattpad following the sale, started the self-publishing platform after the pair dreamed up the idea on a napkin while waiting for a flight at the Vancouver airport food court in 2006.

Wattpad quickly became home to stories from dozens of genres because it allows anyone to share their writing for free and is accessible on phones and tablets.

It became a household name around 2013 when Anna Todd, a Texas woman, started writing After, a fanfiction series on the platform about One Direction singer Harry Styles.

Her stories were eventually made into books and a film series, which encouraged Wattpad to start book publishing and studio entertainment divisions.

However, Lau admitted a sale wasn’t always his plan.

“We weren’t actively looking for sellers, but we have been talking to investors along the way … to accelerate our growth,” he said.

“We knew Naver for quite some time and we realized after some conversations we have a shared vision.”

Opportunity to grow, get into animation, co-founder says

Naver, which bills itself as “South Korea’s largest web search engine,” was an ideal partner because it owns digital comics platform Webtoon, he said.

Webtoon is behind some of the biggest names in webcomics, including Lore Olympus, and has worked with the Jim Henson Company and producers behind hit films like The Lego Movie, the It franchise and Snowpiercer.

Lau said Naver will offer Wattpad a chance to get into animation and to grow beyond the 90 million users — including more than five million writers — that Wattpad has. Webtoon said it has more than 72 million monthly active users.

“Wattpad’s vision to entertain and connect the world through stories fits perfectly with our vision for Webtoon and Naver’s content brand and we’re thrilled to have them join the Naver family,” Seong-sook Han, chief executive, said in a statement.

The acquisition is expected to close in the second quarter of Wattpad’s fiscal year and is subject to regulatory approvals.

It is the latest in a string of sales that have seen once-promising Canadian tech companies snatched up by foreign owners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Element AI, a Montreal-based firm that creates artificial intelligence solutions for large organizations, signed a deal in November to be purchased by ServiceNow, a Santa Clara, Calif., company that offers a cloud-based workflow technology.

San Francisco-based “buy now, pay later” company Affirm reached a deal to buy Toronto rival PayBright for $340 million in early December.

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Ontario faces weeks of major coronavirus vaccination delays due to Pfizer cutbacks – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News



The provincial government is expecting no shipments of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine next week amid a delay in deliveries due to production issues.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 task force, said today that the federal government confirmed Ontario will receive zero shipments of the vaccine next week as Pfizer is dealing with delays in shipments due to production issues in Belgium.

“What Pfizer and I believe the federal government have said to us is that yes we have had some short-term shortages, some short-term disruptions to the allocations but we will make up in late Februrary/March what we missed. And therefore, in the first quarter- our Phase one- we will have the same number of vaccines allocated to us that we expected all along and that we’ve been planning to use,” Hillier said during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

The Canadian government announced on Tuesday morning that the country is not going to get any shipments of Pfizer vaccines next week.

Canada’s coordinator of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin, said Canada’s shipments of the vaccine will be cut by nearly one-fifth this week and drop to zero next week during a press conference.

On Friday, the Canadian government said that nearly half of the doses expected by Pfizer-BioNTech are delayed and will arrive in the next month.

Pfizer’s facility is undergoing modifications in the coming weeks to increase the number of doses it can ship, according to Pfizer Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has insisted that most Canadians will still be vaccinated by the fall if they want the vaccine.

Before the federal government’s announcement on Tuesday, provincial health officials said the province was only expecting an 80% cut in next week’s shipment, which would result in 15 trays of the Pfizer vaccine compared to a promised 83 trays.

Each tray contains approximately 975 doses.

The provincial government already faced a five per cent cut in vaccines from 83 to 80 trays this week due to the delay.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said today that he’s “angry at the situation” that other countries seem to be getting more shipments of the vaccine compared to Canada. 

“We got to be on these guys [Pfizer] like a blanket. I’d be outside that guy’s house. Every time he moved I’d be saying where’s our vaccines? Other people are getting them, the European Union’s getting them, why not Canada? That’s my question to Pfizer. We need your support,” Ford said during the press conference.

Pfizer said many countries will be affected by the delay but did not say which ones. Europe’s shipments are expected to be cut back this week but its dose deliveries are set to return to normal next week.

Ahead of inauguration day tomorrow in the U.S., Ford went on to ask President-elect Joe Biden for help securing more vaccines from a Pfizer plant in Michigan.

“I can’t help but ask the president, we’re the third largest trading partner in the world, Ontario just alone… The least thing you could do in Kalamazoo where the Pfizer plant is- great relationship building- give us a million vaccines. You have 100 million down there, give your great neighbour that stand shoulder-to-shouler with you a million vaccines to keep us going,” Ford said.

In the first two weeks of February, provincial health officials said they are expecting a 55 per cent cut and 45 per cent cut in doses during the weeks of Feb. 1 and Feb.8, respectively.

The government said the allocation of doses remains the same with the priority to inoculate long-term care and high-risk retirement homes and northern, fly-in First Nation communities first.

Health officials added that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine will be reallocated during this delay to more areas to reserve Pfizer for sites that need to provide second doses.

Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are the only shots that have been approved by Health Canada so far. Two doses of the same vaccine are required for full immunization.

Last week, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams updated the guidance on the interval between the two doses.

Those who received the Pfizer vaccine inside long-term care and high-risk retirement homes will receive the second dose in 21 to 27 days. Meanwhile, all other people who have received the first dose will now receive their second dose between 21 and 42 days later. This approach aligns with guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and the World Health Organization.

People who received the Moderna vaccine will receive their second dose after 28 days.

As a result of the Pfizer delay, a pilot COVID-19 vaccination clinic that opened up on Monday at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre will have to pause vaccinations on Friday.

The proof-of-concept clinic is supposed to serve as a guideline for how shots should be administered in non-medical settings starting this spring.

The site had been expected to run for at least six weeks with an initial target of 250 doses per day.

Today provincial health officials said the clinic will resume vaccinations once more doses arrive possibly by mid- February or March.

First round of vaccinations complete at LTC homes in hot spots

Provincial health officials also announced today that the first round of vaccinations has been completed at all long-term care homes in the hot spots of Toronto, Peel Region, York Region and Windsor-Essex ahead of the Jan. 21 target.

All long-term care homes in Ottawa, Durham Region and Simcoe Muskoka have also received the first dose.

Last week, the government said that they hope to administer at least one dose of the vaccine to all residents and staff in all long-term care homes across the province by Feb. 15.

Health officials said the vaccine shortage will not affect this target.

The government also said there have been very few reports of serious events related to the vaccine, and that most have been because patients were allergic.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Chief Coroner said it is investigating after a resident of a Windsor retirement home died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. It is unknown if there is any link between the death and the vaccine.

More than 224,000 doses administered

As of 8 p.m. on Monday, more than 224,000 doses of vaccines have been administered across the province since the first doses were administered in mid-December.

According to public health officials, more than 83,000 of those doses were administered to long-term care home residents and staff, over 25,000 to retirement home residents and staff and more than 99,000 to health-care workers in other sectors.

To date, more than 25,000 Ontarians have been fully vaccinated after receiving both doses of the vaccine.

-With files from The Canadian Press

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Ford speaks as Ontario reports 1,913 new COVID-19 cases –



Premier Doug Ford expressed frustration at the news that Canada will not receive any new doses of the Pfizer vaccine next week, though the general overseeing Ontario’s vaccine rollout plan remains hopeful the distribution delay won’t impede plans to immunize the general population by early August.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Ford called the news that Canada will receive no new Pfizer vaccines next week “troubling” and “a massive concern.”

“Until vaccines are more widely available, please stay home, stay safe and save lives,” he said. 

The news comes as the province recorded another 1,913 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, with officials cautioning that Toronto Public Health — which consistently logs the most new infections each day — is “likely underreporting” its number of cases.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the artificially low total of 550 new cases reported by the city was due to a “technical issue,” but did not provide any further details.

For reference, over the three previous days, Toronto Public Health logged 815, 1035 and 903 cases, respectively.

Other public health units that saw double- or triple-digit increases were:

  • Peel Region: 346
  • York Region: 235
  • Durham Region: 82
  • Windsor-Essex: 81
  • Waterloo Region: 79
  • Middlesex-London: 73
  • Halton Region: 71
  • Hamilton: 63
  • Niagara Region: 52
  • Simcoe Muskoka: 48
  • Ottawa: 41
  • Huron-Perth: 37
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 31
  • Lambton: 28
  • Southwestern: 22
  • Eastern Ontario: 14
  • Chatham-Kent: 13

(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, because local units report figures at different times.)

Over 200,000 Ontarians vaccinated so far

At a technical briefing for media Tuesday morning, members of the COVID-19 vaccination distribution task force offered a rough breakdown of which groups of received a first dose of vaccine:

  • About 83,000 long-term care residents, staff and caregivers.
  • About 25,000 retirement home residents, staff and caregivers.
  • More than 99,000 health-care workers in other sectors.

With the more than 200,000 vaccines administered, Ontario has completed the first round of immunization at all long-term care homes in Toronto, Peel, York and Windsor-Essex — the four regions with the highest transmission rates of the virus. The first round of immunizations has also been administered at all long-term care homes in Ottawa, Durham and Simcoe-Muskoka. 

Still, Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton cautioned, “The rise of community spread during the second wave is posing a serious threat to our long-term care homes.”

The province aims to finish vaccinating those at all remaining long-term care homes by Feb. 15.

At Tuesday’s technical briefing, members of the COVID-19 vaccination distribution task force also addressed how the province is responding to Pfizer’s announcement last week that it was slowing down production of its vaccine, resulting in delivery delays for Canada.

WATCH | An exasperated Premier Ford appeals to incoming U.S. president for vaccines:

The impact in Ontario will vary week to week, officials said, with an 80 per cent reduction in the number of doses that were originally expected the week of Jan. 25; 55 per cent the week of Feb. 1; and 45 per cent the week of Feb. 8.

In turn, the province will reallocate its available doses of the Moderna vaccine to more regions, while also extending the interval between doses of the Pfizer vaccine in some situations to ensure that everyone who has had a first shot will have access to their second.

Residents and staff at long-term care and high-risk retirement homes who have received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine will receive a second dose in 21 to 27 days, the province says. All others who receive the Pfizer vaccine will receive their second dose between 21 and 42 days after the first.

For those who receive the Moderna vaccine, the 28-day schedule will remain in place. 

As for whether the province still expects to immunize the general population of Ontario by late July or early August, General Rick Hillier said that will come down to whether there are any further hiccups with vaccine availability, but that he remains optimistic. 

Toronto to halt operations at mass vaccination clinic

Following the announcement of the delay, the province asked the City of Toronto late Tuesday to immediately stop operating a “proof-of-concept” mass vaccination clinic at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The clinic, which began operating only on Monday, had aimed to vaccinate 250 people per day, but the city noted that was entirely dependent upon vaccine supply.

People scheduled to receive the shot at the clinic over the next three days have had those appointments cancelled, Toronto Public Health said in a statement.

“The City’s Immunization Task Force is continuing to plan for city-wide immunization clinic roll-out and will continue to work with the province to determine next steps once vaccine supply is re-established,” the city said. 

Just over 34,000 new tests processed

Meanwhile, Ontario’s network of labs processed just 34,531 test samples for the novel coronavirus and reported a test positivity rate of 6.8 per cent. Testing levels often fall over weekends, but there is capacity in the system for more than 70,000 tests daily. 

The seven-day average of new daily cases fell to 2,893, the lowest it has been since Jan. 4 this year.

For the seventh time in eight days, the numbers of cases reported resolved outpaced new infections. There are currently about 27,615 confirmed, active cases of COVID-19 provincewide. 

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health said there were 1,626 patients in hospitals with COVID-19. Of those, 400 were being treated in intensive care, the most at any point during the pandemic, and 292 required a ventilator to breathe.

Notably, a daily report generated by Critical Care Services Ontario and shared internally with hospitals puts the current number of ICU patients with COVID-19 at 418, with 303 still on ventilators.

Public health units also recorded 46 additional deaths of people with the illness, bringing the official toll to 5,479.

Twenty-nine of the further deaths were residents of long-term care. A total of 254, or just over 40 per cent, of long-term care facilities in Ontario were dealing with an outbreak of COVID-19.

The province said it administered another 14346 doses of COVID-19 vaccines yesterday, and that 224,134 people have been given a first dose. A total of 25,609 people in Ontario have gotten both shots.

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