Postmaster general leaves his stamp Runyon retires: He changed Postal Service from butt of jokes to profit-maker.

January 30, 1998

ENDING A decade of public service, including four years as head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon will retire in May. The announcement came as a surprise, although it makes sense to leave now: The Postal Service has had a third-straight profitable year, something unimaginable when Mr. Runyon took over the struggling enterprise.

Mr. Runyon denies that his recent disposal of conflict-of-interest charges led to the retirement decision. But the timing suggests he wanted to put the matter behind him before moving on. Mr. Runyon agreed in October to pay a $27,550 settlement to end a civil suit, which alleged that at the same time he owned Coca-Cola stock he illegally took part in negotiations to put Coke machines in post offices.

The blemish should not detract from Mr. Runyon's superb work at the Postal Service. He came with a reputation for efficiency, innovation and cost-cutting -- thus his nickname of "Carvin' Marvin." During his tenure, the giant agency discovered that it could compete with package-delivery services, market postage stamps commemorating such celebrities as Elvis Presley and make money.

The Postal Service has ended each of the past three years with profits exceeding $1 billion -- the last one thanks to the United Parcel Service strike that generated a flood of new business. It has stayed in the black with only one increase in the price of a first-class stamp, from 29 cents to 32 cents. Mr. Runyon managed to keep the huge and costly postal work force of 765,000 from expanding, while cutting 23,000 management jobs. Automation has significantly improved efficiency and on-time delivery.

It's the job of the Postal Service's board of governors to find a successor to Mr. Runyon. He will be a difficult act to follow. The next postmaster general must contend with a board that wants to make more operating decisions, traditional public resistance to any rate increase, ornery postal worker unions and tough new competition from electronic mail. Continuing the profits that Mr. Runyon has generated will be a challenge.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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