The Sobeys grocery store chain is expanding its gasoline retailing business with the purchase of 250 gas stations in Atlantic Canada and Quebec from Shell Canada.

Canada's second-biggest grocery chain already has gas bars at some of its Atlantic stores. However, this deal will give the company a strong presence in the Quebec market as well, Sobeys' parent company Empire Company Ltd. said Thursday.

"This is an exciting opportunity for us to grow our existing retail gas operations while leveraging our significant wholesale and convenience business to better serve our customers and support our affiliates and dealer operations," Sobeys president and chief executive Bill McEwan said.

For Shell, the deal helps the company focus on its other diverse businesses — from oilsands and natural gas to petrochemicals — and still leaves the Calgary energy giant with about 1,350 stations in other parts of Canada.

Shell closed down its Quebec refinery two years —  its largest Canadian refinery — after rejecting potential offers for the 76-year-old operation in east-end Montreal. The company also converted the business to a fuel depot as part of an efficiency drive.

Many integrated oil companies — from Imperial Oil in Canada and its U.S. parent Exxon Mobil — have been selling parts of their retail networks to focus on core production and refining operations, which require huge amounts of capital.

In Shell Canada's case, the Calgary company is spending billions of dollars to expand its Athabasca oilsands mine and is looking at other potentially expensive projects.

Financial terms of the Sobeys deal were not immediately available, but the company said that it expects to use its existing cash to finance the purchase.


Empire Company 3-month chart

The deal came as Empire reported a profit, net of a minority interest, of $78.1 million or $1.15 per diluted share for the latest quarter.

That compared with a profit of $142.9 million or $2.09 per diluted share a year ago when earnings were boosted by a $81.3 million gain on the sale of its stake in the Wajax Income Fund.

Excluding one-time items, Empire reported a profit of $74.6 million or $1.10 per diluted share for the quarter ended Nov. 5, compared with a profit of $69.9 million or $1.02 per share a year ago.

Empire, which owns real estate as well as the Sobeys grocery store chain, reported sales of $4.04 billion during the quarter, up 3.4 per cent from $3.9 billion in the same period a year earlier.

Same-store sales increased 1.9 per cent compared with the same quarter last year.

Earnings from the Sobeys grocery stores totalled $68.5 million, up from $59.7 million, while Empire's real estate and other operations totalled $9.6 million, down from $83.2 million a year ago when the Wajax stake was sold.

Empire shares closed down $1.1, or 1.9 per cent, at $60.83 on the Toronto Stock Exchange Thursday.

Sobeys employs more than 95,000 people and owns or franchises more than 1,300 stores across Canada under retail banners that include Sobeys, IGA, Foodland, FreshCo, and Thrifty Foods.

Shell Canada, with 8,200 employees, is one of the country's largest integrated oil and gas companies, with major operations in the northern Alberta oilsands. The company is also a big natural gas producer, liquefied natural gas developer and chemical plant operator.

Before the Sobeys deal, Shell Canada ran about 1,600 Shell-branded gasoline stations across the country as well as refineries in Alberta and Ontario.

The company is a wholly owned unit of Royal Dutch Shell Group, one of the world's biggest energy producers, and holds nearly a third of the parent company's worldwide energy resources.