Thursday, March 7, 2013

Whither the Hess Christmas Truck

America suffers through a period of nostalgia. We mourn that which is lost: the corner grocer, the grandiose downtown theatre palace and department store, the revered restaurant, the drive in theatre, the bowling alley, HoJo’s, historic buildings, the neighborhood butcher, bookstore and baker, the local pharmacy, and Twinkies. Now though we face perhaps a greater loss: the Hess Christmas truck. Westerners, of course, have no idea what I'm writing about. Mores Hess started a heating oil business in 1925. His son, Leon Hess, took over the bankrupt business in 1933, acquiring a 615 gallon delivery truck. Leon built up the heating oil business. He pioneered the residual oil business, delivering oil to power plants. He learned how to win government contracts. He served as a Transportation Corps officer in World War II. His job was to supply oil to General Patton’s army. Hess built in 1966 the then largest refinery in the western hemisphere in St. Croix, the United States Virgin Island. Hess would buy crude oil from Venezuela, refine it into heating oil, ship it on foreign flagged tankers to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and retail the heating oil in the Northeast. He also took advantage of tax laws to gain an economic edge. His heating oil trucks became a ubiquitous sight during the winter season. He went on an acquisition binge over the years, acquiring the Amerada Corporation in 1969, and numerous other companies along the way. Amerada Hess became an international exploration, development, and oil producer. The company built up a chain of 1361 distinctive green and white service stations in 16 states along the eastern seaboard. Leon became a minority owner of the New York Jets in 1963 for $250,000 and later assumed total ownership until his death in 1999. Leon Hess shunned the spotlight, but he received large press coverage as owner of the Jets, partially because his team could never win the Super Bowl after Joe Nameth in Super Bowl III. The company issued its first Christmas toy truck in 1964. Christmas gold struck. The Christmas albums issued by singers couldn’t compare to the magic of the Hess truck. The annual tradition unleashed long lines at Hess stations over the Holidays – not necessarily for Hess gas, but for the trucks, which could include helicopters, patrol cars, suv’s, race cars, rescue vehicles, and fire engines. They are coin banks with battery operated features. Hess trucks are not your grandfather’s Matchbox or Mighty Tonka. They have long since stopped becoming toys for boys. Fathers look forward every year for the new Hess, perhaps to squirrel away and not share with the son. Hess’ annual model change has more meaning than Detroit’s. They are collector’s items, with some of the earlier trucks in mint condition fetching hundreds and thousands of dollars in today’s market. Hess Corporation announced on March 4, 2013 that it will sell off its refineries and retail operations to become a purely exploration and production company. The Hess brand name may join the gas company graveyard with Ashland, Boron, Enco, Esso, Flying A, Humble, Kyso, Pure, Richfield, Sohio, Tidewater, and Flying A. The question is: Forget Hess, what happens to the Hess trucks? The sales and profits from the Christmas trucks are petty cash to the $40 billion Hess enterprise. If the Hess brand name is discontinued, then the market for the trucks will probably disappear. Buying the iconic Hess truck at Toy’s r Us will not be the same.

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