Inside the cavernous Baltimore post office downtown, James A. Nemec watched as a stream of letters flew by like Indy cars through a noisy sorting machine.
"I feel really confident," said Nemec, who is acting postmaster. "If the mail is inducted into this plant, it is going to be delivered."
Neither he nor any other postal employee in Baltimore would have dared been so bold a few years ago.
In 1994, Baltimore's mail service was ranked by PricewaterhouseCoopers as the worst in the country. Mail was delivered late, pickups were tardy and two-day Priority Mail often arrived in three days.
Today, the same people who rated it the worst last year ranked the Maryland postal district, anchored by Baltimore's main post office, as the best in the nation.
And in January, Phoenix-Hecht, a company in North Carolina that measures how quickly payments sent to remittance centers are processed, ranked the Baltimore post office second best in the country, tied with Pittsburgh.
Perhaps its biggest recognition came last month, when Chicago-based Bank One Corp. selected Baltimore for a check-remittance center, largely because of the city's post office. The company, which is expected to employ about 500 people, will be on Fayette Street, across from the post office.
"I am expecting just great results," said Kenneth Yokum, manager of national remittance operations at Bank One. "I think we are going to be extremely successful ... and it will be a large part because of that post office."
The Baltimore post office and the statewide district are no small operations. They employ 10,000 workers from Cumberland to the Eastern Shore, process 5.1 billion pieces of mail a year - an average of 14 million pieces a day - and have annual revenue of $840 million.
It took years for the local postal service to turn itself around. Mail delivery and pickup were shoddy, customers couldn't get answers to problems and employees had little guidance on how to improve their work. In a 1994 survey by Pricewaterhouse, only 66 percent of the first-class letters mailed in Baltimore arrived on time.
Even big customers suffered from the poor service.
"Before ... you would put in a call for someone regarding a problem and a lot of times you wouldn't get that call back," said Mark Dennin, manager of sales and customer service at Jetsort, a large mailing company based in Baltimore. "It was a hassle to get someone at the post office to deal with your problem."
Jetsort and other companies tested the postal service by "seeding" the mail with letters to test how long it took them to reach their destinations. A batch of overnight letters sent from Baltimore to Columbia might arrive in 24 hours, but another batch might take two days.
"We would see a percentage of our mail wasn't getting there in a timely fashion on a consistent basis," Dennin said.
The Baltimore post office's concern was moving letters and packages from one place to the next, but the office had no way of measuring how quickly the mail was delivered or whether customers were satisfied, said John Budzynski, manager of customer service operations, and an 18-year veteran of the post office.
"There was no focus on what the customer needed. The customer was sort of out of it," he said.
The turnaround began in 1992, when Marvin Runyon was named postmaster general of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington. A former Ford Motor Co. executive, Runyon slashed jobs and insisted that the postal service operate like a Fortune 500 company.
Slowly, the postal service began to change, and Baltimore was no exception.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the Baltimore operation, adding state-of-the-art processing equipment. A machine called the AFSM 100 processes 17,000 pieces of mail an hour, many times faster than the 800 pieces an hour processed by hand.
But the improvements have less to do about machinery than the philosophy passed down by Runyon. The Baltimore executives have clung to a "customer comes first" mantra and are constantly testing and measuring their performance.
Each day, PricewaterhouseCoopers places bundles of letters in boxes and waits to see if postal workers pick them up on time. Then, they measure how quickly the mail is delivered. The tiniest lapses are brought to management's attention. The Baltimore post office also hires an outside company that dispatches people into branches to gauge cleanliness, courtesy and service.
"Initially, you are almost scared to look at the customer results, there is so much emphasis on it," Budzynski said. "One thing we are focused on now is what does the customer think of us."
Nemec is flooded with reams of data each day. Measured activities include delivery times, the amount of mail processed in an hour at the plant and the amount of mail accepted and rejected by machines.
He pores over the information and can pinpoint if a machine is malfunctioning, whether mail is being picked up on time at the 3,058 collection boxes in Baltimore City, or if a postal worker is sloughing off.