The new postmaster general speaks out
VIDEO | By A.J. Chavar/The Washington Post
Patrick R. Donahoe is just the seventh person to climb the ranks of the U.S. Postal Service to become postmaster general. Over 35 years, he's moved 11 times and held 16 jobs on his way to the top, and went from earning $4.76 an hour to at least $275,000 annually.
The Pittsburgh-area native joined the Postal Service after his uncle encouraged him to take the entrance exam.
He took the top spot in early December from his predecessor, John E. Potter, spoke recently with The Federal Eye for The Post's OnLeadership series, which hears regularly with CEOs, academics, lawmakers, religious leaders and other notable figures about their life, career and thoughts on leadership. As the head of the nation's second-largest civilian workforce, editors believed Donahoe is a natural fit for the series.
A transcript of our conversation, edited for space and clarity, appears below. Watch video highlights in the clip above:
The Federal Eye: You mentioned Jack Potter, your predecessor, who just left last year. It's rare that the vice president or the deputy graduates into the top job. What did you learn from him that you'll remember and what might you do differently?
He was great to work for, because he gave me all sorts of flexibility in ways to run the operation. He focused extensively on outreach and a lot of work with Congress, as you know. I've learned a lot of good things from Jack, about how to deal with some of the setbacks, because, you know there are a lot of issues that we feel strongly about and it's a hard grind to get these things moving along.
The other thing that I'll do differently is put a lot more focus on growing revenue in this industry - not just the Postal Service - but it's an industry issue.
We also know there's still plenty of work in the package business, whether we're working with FedEx and UPS, we've seen growth there. We also know that we bring a lot of value to the whole market, from the standpoint from what we can bring with Priority Mail and other offerings you'll see in the coming months.
You've said you're going to go try and woo some of the largest companies in the country that aren't using the Postal Service. Give us the sales pitch.
If you advertise in the mail, your customer will take that mail out of the mailbox and look at it. they might not want to keep it, but they'll look at it. and that'll be the one way to get in front of your customer's eyes. And we think that if you put together a good ad campaign, something that catches a person's eyes, hey, if they get a 2 or 3 percent response on that, they're happy. If they get 5 to 10 percent response, they're elated.
So even if I'm going to get something from a car dealership, look at it and go, 'Ah, junk mail' and throw it out, you're saying that's of more value than TV, web or print ads?
I think so. Think of how many people would never see the ad on TV, would never hear the ad on the radio. How many stations are on the radio these days? And how many people have XM radio - they don't even want to hear them. We want to get in front of your eyes.
Negotiations are underway with two of your largest unions. There are some concerns with "excessing" - moving people to new positions or to a new town. You've said that one of the biggest concerns to the whole program that there's a big fear about change. Talk a little bit about how you're trying to allay those fears.
People come to the Postal Service for a good, safe career. Historically that's been the people who we attract. We're very fortunate, because most people who come here turn out to be great employees. I'm talking 99.9 percent. They jump in, they get that spirit of delivering to customers and they do a great job. Many, many people still don't like to change. I think there's a statistic that says that 90 percent of the people who work in the Postal Service begin and retire in the same building where they started. They don't like to change. You'd be surprised how many people are pleased with the night shift or the afternoon shift.
We've been able to avoid having to move a lot of people, to go through a lot of layoffs and such, but invariably you're going to have to change the way that some people do their job.
You're basically saying that if necessary, they have to be moved around? You can't afford to keep them in place?
We can't afford to have them sitting in the same spot. In many cases, we have people who work the window some days and carry the mail another. You go through different processes from a labor union perspective. You want them to have gainful employment. People understand that, they want to make sure that they're getting as close to 40 hours a week as they can, so we work with them.
Are the postal unions standing in the way of making changes you need to make?
No. They are led by good people. The presidents are very good people. They're people. They're looking at the challenges that we have with the same, 'Oh my goodness' that everybody else does. These guys, I'll tell you, we've reduced head count in this organization by 225,000 people since the year 2000. There are very few labor unions in the world who wouldn't be jumping up and down ranting and raving about that. They know what I and Jack Potter have done is to make sure there's as soft a landing as possible. They've worked with us on that.
As far as contracts go, they know what we're facing from a financial perspective. They know what we've got on the table with them, and they have to make some decisions. They're tough decisions, but my point to these guys has been, it's better for us to make the tough decisions now, then have somebody else make a decision later on, like GM, like Chrysler and some of the other companies you've seen going into bankruptcy.
What's your message to the rank and file at a time like this?
Keep doing a great job. You do a great job everyday for your customers and the American public. Focus on the quality of your work, focus on the customer and excellent customer experience. Focus on generating revenue and be as productive as you can. If you do that, this organization will be fine.
Don't worry about the legislative things, that's for me to worry about.
Considering the financial health of this organization, why would anyone want to work here?
It's still a great job. If you are a letter carrier and you come in in the morning, you're out on the street, it might be cold or snowy in some parts of the country, but you're out there, you're meeting with your customers, you're working pretty much on your own all day. The pay is good. I know there are some concerns going forward, but hey, look around. We still have one of the best jobs in the country, when you compare them to many other places in the country where there's a lot more hardship.
Why do you want to cut Saturday mail deliveries?
All of the cuts still, as you go forward are not enough to make the difference up, because of one thing and one thing only: First-class mail decline. First-class mail is declining at 6 percent a year. It might not seem like a big number, but when you go year after year after year, we're down 20 percent.
Let us move from six to five days, we'll take care of what we need to in terms of revenue generation, we'll take care of employment costs and administrative and union costs. And you know what would happen? We'd find ourselves in the black and able to pay that $15 billion debt down and by 2015 we'd have the debt cleaned up.
How much does it cost to deliver mail on Saturdays?
The total for the entire organization is $3 billion.
When was the last time you mailed a personal piece of mail?
Yesterday. I sent a note to a guy in California who owns a business that's trying how to figure out how to create individual mail pieces.
No I mean a personal note to a friend or relative.
Probably three days ago I sent a congratulations note to someone who got promoted.
How about the last time you received a personal piece of mail from a family friend?
Probably three or four times a week I'll get something. My uncle sends me stuff all the time. And I am a card sender. I think that there is a ton of value to it. You know what I do when I get e-cards? Delete.
But if I get a card in the mail, I open it and save it. I have a box of stuff up in my office that I've dragged around for the better part of 30 years that has cards and pictures.
The personal touch is a big thing. I was having dinner with friends of ours the other night. Their kids were there and they said, what's the oddest thing you ever saw come in the mail? Probably a coconut. Those kids mailed coconuts. They went out the next day to find some. They think that's so neat."
E-mail is so impersonal. Texting is so impersonal. Getting that little card in the mail means so much to people.
If everyone person in America sent a greeting card to someone else, how much revenue would that generate?
You're talking 300 million times 44 cents. That'd be about $120 million bucks? We'll take it.
Watch video highlights of the interview above and leave your thoughts in the comments section below
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| January 31, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Eye Opener, Postal Service
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