Hess Corp. Straddling Fence on Retail Unit

Oil exploration and production company Hess (NYSE: HES  ) continues following a dual track in arriving at the best way to dispose of its retail business. As the largest convenience-store owner on the East Coast, with 1,258 fuel and food outlets, Hess can't decide yet whether spinning off the asset is the best way to maximize shareholder gains or if selling it would reap the largest reward. As a result, it's pursuing both paths simultaneously.

Earlier this month it filed with the SEC the forms necessary to spin off the retail division, a tax-free distribution to shareholders that it anticipates would be completed by the middle of the year. As promising as that possibility is, it really hasn't given up on selling the unit, either, noting that there's a "parallel" divestiture process still moving forward.

And Hess certainly understands how to maximize value following that route. It reported fourth-quarter earnings the other day that saw profits surge more than 400% on the backs of gains made from selling off assets, completing the sales of its energy marketing and terminals businesses in Indonesia, shedding a subsidiary in Russia and interests in the U.K.'s North Sea, as well as the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli fields offshore of Azerbaijan and its Eagle Ford shale assets in Texas.  

Total proceeds from these sales were approximately $7.8 billion, and it's still in the midst of selling its Thailand assets, its energy trading operations, and, of course, the retail marketing business. And just yesterday it announced that it sold acreage from its Utica dry shale portfolio for $924 million, even as it mulls over the creation of a master limited partnership for its Bakken shale assets.

The transition to a pure-play E&P shop had the effect of generating $1.9 billion in net profits, or $5.76 per share, compared with $374 million, or $1.10 per share, a year earlier. Yet when you back out all those cash infusions from the asset sales, quarterly profits came in well below Wall Street expectations. That's largely a result of the situation in Libya, which remains highly unstable and led to a drop in production.

In partnership with National Oil, which controls oil production in Libya, Hess produced 307,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the quarter, down from 396,000 in the year-ago period. It's forecasting production in 2014 to average between 305,000 and 315,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, excluding Libya.

If Hess decides to take the spinoff path with its retail business, it says the new company will trade on the NYSE under the ticker symbol HRE. A sale would likely involve Alimentation Couche-Tard (NASDAQOTH: ANCTF  ) , which operates the Circle K brand, and is one of the largest convenience-store operators in North America, second only to 7-Eleven; Marathon Petroleum (NYSE: MPC  ) , which operates about 1,470 stations through its Speedway subsidiary; or BJ's Wholesale Club, which has around 200 wholesale clubs in 15 eastern states, half of which feature gas stations. All three have been identified as prime candidates for buying the unit, which has been estimated to be worth around $1.5 billion.

In either case, though, Hess investors should reap a fair value for their money as Hess would undoubtedly use part of the proceeds to buy back more stock. Last year it used more than $1.5 billion to repurchase shares via the $4 billion buyback program it began while raising the annual dividend 150% to $1.00 per share.

No matter how it's resolved, it's a pretty penny for Hess, one that should be pure profit for investors.

Tossing and turning
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9/17/2014 4:01 PM
HES $98.90 Down -0.28 -0.28%
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