A report from OPIS says Thorntons is looking to sell. | Courtesy of Thorntons

Thorntons is reportedly looking for a suitor, according to OPIS, a company that monitors all aspects of the petroleum industry including retail businesses.

Multiple sources told OPIS that Thorntons has hired investment bank Lazard to explore a sale of the company’s 192 convenience stores and gas stations, according to the report.

The Louisville-based company declined to comment.

“While we don’t comment on rumor or speculation, we see great growth ahead for Thorntons this year and in future years, and we are very happy with our business,” a spokeswoman said in an email to Insider Louisville.

An expert with the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) said he did not have insider information about whether Thorntons is looking to sell or who would buy it, but he said mergers and acquisitions are a top trend within the industry, which boasts 15,500 stores in the United States alone.

“There is a heated market to acquire good locations that are well-run,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president for strategic industry initiatives for NACS. “Thorntons, by all accounts, is considered one of the better companies in the industry.”

Lenard said the two biggest players in the acquisition of convenience stores are Japanese-owned 7-Eleven, which has around 10,000 stores in North America, and Canada-based Alimentation Couche-Tard, which is similarly sized and owns brands including Circle K.

“Right now, the reason for mergers and acquisitions is there are very willing buyers and the multiples are strong,” Lenard said. “The value of convenience is extremely high, and if you are a good operator, there are opportunities to do something in the market.”

OPIS noted that, according to its data, Thorntons has two to three times more market share than its average competitor, including more than 7 percent market share in its home state of Kentucky.

If Thorntons or a similarly sized convenience store company were to become part of a larger company, it would not likely have a street-level impact on consumers, Lenard said.

“While there is consolidation near the top, there is also an awful lot of growth with the single-store operators that dominate our industry,” he said, noting that 63 percent of convenience stores are owned by single-store operators.

There is plenty of competition within the industry to sell customers fuel, cigarettes, prepared food and other items found at convenience stores, but the industry also faces competition from dollar stores, drugstores and grocery stores.

Still, the industry continues to do well, with sales at U.S. stores reaching nearly $550 billion in 2016, and according to the most recent available data, convenience stores sell 80 percent of all fuel.

Thorntons was founded by James H. Thornton in 1971, and has locations in Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Florida.

During the past several years, the company has invested millions to modernize its stores, including adding more healthy and prepared food options made in on-site kitchens. It also built a new $27.8 million headquarters off Old Henry Road in 2016.