New 'sonic eagle' expected to lift mails to new heights

June 19, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Two large eagles are carved into the elegant wooden doors that guard entry to the suite of offices occupied by Postmaster General Marvin Runyon. Unfortunately they are the wrong eagles.

They are the old eagles, the eagles that, Runyon says, "look like they are roosting." Meaning sitting down.

The Postal Service's new eagle, designed in 1993 at a total replacement cost of $6.6 million (in a year when the Postal Service showed a deficit of $1.3 billion) is what Runyon calls his "sonic eagle."

To him it looks like an eagle in rapid motion, jetting through space.

To others, it looks like a bird bucking a head wind.

But it is not likely that Marvin Runyon cares what it looks like to others. At 69, Runyon resembles one of those gaunt pioneers from a Thomas Hart Benton painting: piercing blue eyes underneath bushy eyebrows, a long strong nose, wavy white hair. There seems an air of flinty independence to him.

On the day before I interviewed him last week, Runyon had announced yet another reorganization, this one changing "area managers" into "vice presidents." This time, however, the change could have real meaning: In the exquisitely intricate world of government employment, being a vice president sometimes means you can be fired.

"A vice president is a little more accountable," Runyon said. "We can move on them faster than a regular employee. It has been the culture here not to remove people."

Culture is one of Runyon's favorite words. And the culture of the Postal Service is what he has pledged to change.

For 37 years with Ford Motor Co., then eight years as president of Nissan's U.S. operations, he left to chair the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1988, where he cut costs and ended a 20-year string of rate increases.

When he became the nation's 70th postmaster in 1992, he faced a more daunting task, however: The Postal Service is a behemoth. With about 700,000 employees, it is the nation's largest civilian employer and has a ratio of about one supervisor for every six workers.

And though less than 5 percent of the mail is made up of correspondence between individuals, every American is a postal customer and potential critic.

So just in case he didn't already know them, I listed some complaints for Runyon: Mail service is too slow and unreliable. Services like two-day Priority Mail stink. And postal workers don't seem to face the same demands or scrutiny as workers in the private sector.

Runyon's solution is one he has tried in his previous jobs: The workers have the answers, if you can just find managers to listen to them.

"We need to empower employees," Runyon said. "We've been too authoritarian, where a supervisor goes in and says: 'This is the way I want it done and check your brain at the door.' We have to think of ourselves as facilitators instead of dictators. We've got a system that will do the job. Now we've got to get people who know what they are doing. Their jobs depend on it."

How so, considering it is so hard to fire anybody at the Postal Service?

Runyon leaned forward. "When the mail stream drops to 50 percent of what it is today," he said ominously, "jobs are going to be reduced."

And he is right. E-mail, fax, Fed Ex, UPS, etc., already take large bites out of what the Postal Service used to do. And if the service doesn't improve, consumers will continue to abandon it.

So why on earth, I asked Runyon, did he need a new $6.6 million logo?

"It will improve things," he said. "All corporations who undergo change, change logos. We had to send a signal. This was our first step in improving service. And $6.6 million out of a $40 billion budget isn't a lot."

Which may, unfortunately, be the true "culture" of the Postal Service: What's a few million here and there?

And last Wednesday, the same day I interviewed Runyon, the House of Representatives cut the Postal Service's 1995 appropriation by $6.6 million to offset the cost of Runyon's new logo.

It may be "sonic" to Runyon, but to Rep. Sam Coppersmith, D-Ariz, the new eagle was "a bonehead idea."

Runyon remains undaunted. "We showed that logo to our postmasters," he said, "and they said: 'If we use that, we will have to improve service.' "

Well, the postmasters got their new eagle. And now we'll see if America gets the improved service.

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