ROCHESTER — The bad news served up last week by the Hess Corp. could be traced directly to some unethical business practices that flourished in at least one retail service station, three decades ago.
Perhaps, if some of the attendants had not been involved in a scheme to overcharge unsuspecting customers, Hess would not have decided to close all of its stations.
I am among the guilty.
Hess announced that it was, “fully exiting the company’s downstream businesses, including retail, energy marketing and energy trading.”
So, the company best known for its green and white color scheme and its detailed toy truck collection will now concentrate on the technical side of the petroleum industry. It is being labeled as a “multi-year, strategic transformation into a pure play exploration and production company.”
The shenanigans on East Henrietta Road, just outside Rochester, in the mid-1970s may have contributed to the start of the company’s financial downfall. The profits lost, one unsuspecting customer at a time, have come home to roost.
The station was equipped with old-school pumps, outfitted with one port on each side, for the dispensing nozzle. There were T-shaped switches below these ports which were used to turn the pump on and off. A design flaw allowed some of these nozzles to be replaced, without shutting off the pump.
When someone purchased only a dollar or two of gas, the nozzle could be returned to the pump, but the mechanism remained active. When someone came in for a larger amount of fuel, or better yet, a fill-up, the sale started from the $1 point instead of zero. If the driver bought $15 worth, he or she actually received only $14 worth, and the attendant pocketed a dollar. The gas station attendant team could divide the proceeds evenly, at the end of the shift.
With as many as four of us in on the deal, the slush fund accumulated fairly quickly. I never imagined that shorting a few customers would eventually cause Hess to cease all retail operations.
“Hanging” was not a perfect science. Some customers questioned us about how much gas we had actually pumped and the Monroe County Bureau of Weights and Measures personnel showed up more than once to inspect the pumps. I’m sure it was not coincidental that an investigative reporter from a local television station came in several times, in his personal vehicle.
Service was a staple of the operation. We washed the front and back windows of all customers’ vehicles. The big seller was oil. Anyone familiar with internal combustion engines knows that you should not check the dipstick immediately after shutting off the motor. The oil does not have sufficient time to drain into its reservoir. Checking too soon will give you an inaccurately low reading. It was up to us to sell as many quarts of oil as we could, on any given shift. If you weren’t selling oil, you weren’t doing your job.
At 18 years old, I was one of the younger employees and usually worked the 3 – 11 p.m. shift. The well-illuminated station was open 24 hours, with sales’ being cash only and requiring exact change after midnight. The attendant assigned to that overnight shift worked alone, waiting on factory workers, bar hoppers and hunters, before the sun came up. The horizon seemed to glow in atomic tones after working a double shift, in those days.
Hanging was one way to make some extra money, while braving the elements and peering under an endless number of hoods. Those extra dollars came in handy to a college freshman getting by on Genesee Cream Ale, popcorn and chicken wings. Plus, I had to save some money to date a girl in Buffalo.
David F. Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at email@example.com.