Percy Alexander Staples, 1883-1956
Milton Hershey was not a person to leave things to chance. As his health began to decline in the 1940s, he knew he must plan for the future leadership of the companies and community he had created. On October 5, 1944 he announced that he was resigning as chair of the Hershey Chocolate, Hershey Trust Company, and Hershey Industrial School Boards. To succeed him Mr. Hershey chose Percy Alexander (P.A.) Staples, a man little known in the Hershey community but who had managed Hershey’s Cuban holdings since 1921.
P.A. Staples was born on March 31, 1883 in Portland, Maine. He was trained as an engineer and began his career working with a variety of companies involved with the management of utilities. Mr. Staples served as an aide with the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1903 to 1905, and was later associated with Stone and Webster and with W. S. Barstow & Company in the management of public utilities. Later he became a partner with L. A. Riley, New York, Consulting Engineers.
In 1921, Milton Hershey hired him to serve as the Comptroller of Hershey Chocolate’s Cuban railroad and sugar companies. Initially, Staples thought that he would only be there a year or two, just long enough to get the company properly organized. This temporary assignment grew into a long term career. Staples served as President, General Manager and Director of Hershey’s Cuban interests from 1921 until 1947.
As General Manager, he rebuilt and reorganized Hershey’s sugar and public utility properties in Cuba to a point where they produced more than three times Hershey’s vast requirements for sugar in chocolate making. Some 60,000 acres of land, five times as much as the Pennsylvania holdings, were acquired in Cuba, for the production of sisal and peanut oil, as well as sugar, to keep Hershey workers employed the year round. Mr. Staples was entrusted with the task of establishing “Central Hershey,” the Cuban counterpart of the model town of Hershey, Pennsylvania.
In 1944, Staples advocated to Milton Hershey that they sell the Cuban holdings because Staples didn’t want all of Hershey’s financial eggs in one basket and he was concerned about Cuba’s political unrest. Mr. Hershey agreed and the process of looking for a buyer began. In 1946, the Cuban holdings, valued at 30 million dollars, were sold to the Cuban Atlantic Sugar Company. The proceeds of the sale were added to the Hershey Industrial School Trust Fund.
While Staples was not well known in Hershey, Milton Hershey deeply trusted him. Staples was appointed to the Hershey Chocolate Corporation Board of Directors in 1927, to the Hershey Estates Board in 1929, and to the Boards of the Hershey Industrial School (now known as the Milton Hershey School) and the Hershey Trust Company in 1930. In 1944, at the request of Milton S. Hershey, P.A. Staples became Chairman of the Board of Managers of the Hershey Industrial School, The M. S. Hershey Foundation and President of the Hershey Trust Company.
Milton Hershey’s choice of Staples was a surprise to many in Hershey who thought that William F.R. Murrie would be the logical successor. However, Hershey knew that Murrie’s age and failing eyesight made him a poor choice to lead the company into the next decade.
In 1944, P.A. Staples and his wife relocated to Hershey, Pennsylvania to better carry out his new responsibilities. As a temporary home Mr. and Mrs. Staples occupied a furnished apartment at the Meadows, originally the Leitheiser home (238 East Chocolate Ave). They contemplated moving into the vacant Snyder home, but instead engaged a suite of rooms at the Hotel Hershey where they lived until Mr. Staples’ sudden death on July 23, 1956, followed by Mrs. Staples unexpected passing in November of the same year.
P.A. Staples was a very private man, very concerned with his responsibility to maintain and protect the Hershey Industrial School Trust. He was obsessed with the Chocolate Corporation’s profits and the rapidly shifting cocoa bean prices that caused havoc on the Company’s bottom line during the 1950s. He would take work home in the evening, take it to bed with him up at the Hotel, and he spent the weekends at the bank building engaged in the work of the bank and the Trust Company. Many believed that he worried himself to death over the cocoa bean market. He was single minded when faced with a problem or challenge and approached it with a “win at any cost” attitude.
This approach led to the company’s successful lawsuit against the Annville Stone Company, a local mining operation. Annville Stone’s mines had flooded and as they attempted to pump the water out all the streams and springs in the area began to dry up including the water sources critical to the factory’s operations. Hershey Chocolate brought suit against the Annville Stone Company, not only because of their water shortage but on behalf of all the locally affected farmers. In a meeting with the Philadelphia law firm hired to represent Hershey Chocolate Staples made the following statement: “This meeting will be very short. I want you to hear it, Mr. Macintosh [the lawyer], and I want my managers to hear it. I don’t give a damn what it costs. You must win this case.” The case was decided in Hershey’s favor and it became a landmark case, the first time the courts had ruled in favor of the public good over the needs of a commercial mining interest.
Staples was also responsible for pushing the company to decrease its wholesale production of bulk and coating chocolate. Staples’ obsession with maintaining the company’s profits led him to the realization that demand for Hershey’s Milk Chocolate was growing in the post-war years and the company was unable to meet demand for retail product while producing bulk chocolate for its commercial customers. During the 1950s the company began to slowly shift away from bulk chocolate sales and direct all production to retail market.
Mr. Staples was a very reticent man and was very uncomfortable in large groups. After the gregarious personalities of William Murrie and J.J. Gallagher, it was a dramatic shift in leadership styles. Staples was more interested in the financial side of the business. His focus and concern about protecting the School Trust led him to seriously consider selling the Chocolate Company to invest the funds in more stable holdings. Just prior to his death there were many rumors that Staples planned to sell the Chocolate business. His appointment of William Radebaugh, a New York lawyer and the first outside director, to the Hershey Chocolate Board of Directors was perceived as the first step toward selling the company.
His unexpected death in 1956 caused many in the company to breathe a sigh of relief. Never again would so much power be vested in the hands of one man.