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Did ripping off customers fuel end of Hess gas stations?

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.

Yes, I am among the guilty.

Hess announced 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 concentrate instead on the technical side of the petroleum industry. It’s being labeled as a “multi-year strategic transformation into a pure play exploration and production company.”

Clearly, the shenanigans on East Henrietta Road, just outside Rochester, in the mid-’70s were the start of the company’s financial downfall. The profits lost one unsuspecting customer at a time have come home to roost.

Here are the shocking details.

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 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 pulled in and purchased only a dollar or two of gas, the stage was set for “hanging the pump.” The nozzle was returned to the pump but the mechanism was kept active. Thus when someone came in for a larger amount of fuel, or better yet a fill-up, we used that pump and started the sale 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 tricky team divided the proceeds evenly at the end of the shift.

With sometimes as many as four of us in on the deal, the slush fund accumulated fairly quickly. There was peer pressure to be sure, but I never imagined that shorting a few customers would eventually cause Hess to cease all retail operations. Shame.

“Hanging” was not a perfect science. Some customers questioned us about how much gas we had actually pumped, and county Bureau of Weights and Measures personnel showed up more than once to inspect the pumps. I’m sure it was not coincidental that a local television investigative reporter came in several times in his personal vehicle.

Service was a staple of the operation, and we had to wash the front and back windows of all customers’ vehicles. Yet the big seller was oil. Anyone familiar with the internal combustion engine will tell you that you don’t 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 inaccurate reading - that you are low on oil. 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.

It’s a blessing that we did not stock snow tires.

At 18, I was one of the younger employees and usually worked the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. The well-illuminated station was open 24 hours, with sales being cash only and exact change after midnight. The lucky guy assigned to that overnight shift worked alone, waiting on factory workers, then bar hoppers and then hunters, before the sun came up.

The horizon seemed to glow in atomic tones after working a double shift in those days, and the grease and grime came home with me.

“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 that girl in Buffalo.

(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com)


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