Leon Hess (March 14, 1914 – May 7, 1999) was the founder of the Hess Corporation and the owner of the New York Jets. He was born to a Jewish family in Asbury Park and attended Asbury Park High School, where he was noted for his ambition; he graduated in 1931.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Leon Hess’s father, Mores, had been trained in Lithuania to be a kosher butcher. When he came to America and settled in New Jersey he ran a fuel-delivery company. Mores Hess’s business went bankrupt in 1933. Leon, age 19, while still driving the delivery truck, reorganized the company and oversaw its growth, employing a signature trait: boldness. He formed Hess Incorporated, and began his own residential delivery service, seven days a week.
”In 1933, during the Depression, I started out with one small 615-gallon truck delivering home heating oil in Asbury Park,” he said.
Using old tankers, Hess built a fuel oil terminal in Perth Amboy, N.J., and aggressively underbid competitors seeking federal oil contracts. In World War II, rising to the rank of major, he served as petroleum supply officer for U.S. Army General George S. Patton’s Third Army. The speed of Patton’s tank attacks was in good measure dependent on fuel that Major Hess provided.
Using innovative techniques after the war, which included building his own centralized storage systems, Hess made inroads on the share of the petroleum business held by the giant companies. By the late 1950s, he had built the first Hess refinery. In 1960, he opened a chain of Hess gasoline stations, with the first in Paterson, N.J. From there, Mr. Hess expanded his operations and grew his company rapidly.
Perhaps Leon Hess is best remembered for his ownership of the New York Jets National Football League franchise, his famous annual holiday Hess Toy Trucks, and his philanthropy.
In 1963, Hess invested $250,000 in a failed NFL franchise then known as the Titans. In 1984 he bought out his last remaining partner, and in the 1990s he saw his investment blossom into one of the sports world’s most valuable franchises, if not exactly among its winningest.
In 1964, Leon Hess had the inspiration for the first Hess Toy Truck. He wanted a toy truck made with outstanding craftsmanship and innovative use of technology, and he wanted to offer it at a price that families could afford, with batteries included, a concept that endures to this day. The first of these was a replica of a truck and tanker trailer, the 1964 B61 Mack, that could be filled with water and emptied through its delivery hose. It was offered exclusively at Hess gas stations and began an annual tradition of offering Hess truck replicas to provide a fun, high quality and affordable toy for families during the holidays. The early models have become valuable collectibles, and each year’s edition sells out quickly.
Leon Hess admired and demanded loyalty, whether in company employees, football coaches and players, and business partners. When Dennis Byrd, a Jets defensive player, suffered what was feared to be permanent paralysis following a collision with a teammate in a 1992 game, Leon Hess repeatedly visited the hospital and assured Byrd of lifelong income and medical help if necessary. Coaches and players found that Mr. Hess’s private jet was available to them if family emergencies arose.
Leon Hess died of a blood disease on May 7, 1999, in New York City. In 2011, he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. The Hess Foundation carries on his long tradition of philanthropy, with gifts that helped create the Leon Hess Cancer Center at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, and the Leon Hess Business School at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, among others.
Advertisement for Leon Hess Inc. (1933). Asbury Park Press, April 29, 1933, P. 3.
Eskenazi, Gerald. (1999). Leon Hess, Who Built a Major Oil Company and Owned the Jets, Is Dead at 85. The New York Times, May 8, 1999, Section B, P. 7.
Hess Toy Truck Fleet and History. https://hesstoytruck.com/
History of Hess Corporation. https://www.hess.com/company/hess-history