“The United States Postal Service delivers for the American public—both literally and figuratively,” said Megan J. Brennan ’84. In February 2015, Brennan became the 74th postmaster general of the United States, the first woman to occupy that office. She called this “a tremendous honor” and a humbling opportunity.
In this position, Brennan testified at a recent House of Representatives committee hearing where she eloquently described the Postal Service’s role in American society—a role we often take for granted, but one that is nonetheless crucial, even in this digital age.
“The United States Postal Service provides the nation with a vital delivery platform that sustains and propels American commerce, serves every American business and residential address, and binds the nation together, as it has for more than 240 years,” Brennan said. She then asked the committee for comprehensive postal reform legislation that would provide the organization with greater flexibility and financial stability.
In the meantime, she is focused on the future of the organization, speeding the pace of innovation, improving the customer’s experience, and developing strategies to better engage and empower employees—all while continuing to offer reliable, affordable mail service to every American business and residence.
The Brennan spirit and the letter
When Brennan’s father worked for the Postal Service, his motto was, “Deliver the letter, the sooner the better.” He, his sons, and daughter have spent more than 125 years combined working for the Postal Service.
Brennan began her 30-year Postal Service career as a letter carrier in Lancaster, PA. Barbara Williams Willis ’83, who was a student with Brennan both at Nativity High School in Pottsville, PA and later at Immaculata, saw early signs of her friend’s leadership skills, strong work ethic, and charismatic, spirited personality.
“She was always the one to set the tone in a group of friends,” Willis said. “She understands people and knows how to make things happen, and that’s probably why she’s been so successful.”
Brennan and Willis played on their high school basketball team together, which won the state championship. Brennan had a tough, competitive spirit.
Before every game, the coach, who was a priest, took his team to chapel, where they took turns leading the prayers or saying something inspirational to the team. Brennan was good at that, Willis said. “I don’t think she liked the spotlight, but it kind of always found her.”
During their time at Immaculata, Willis saw Brennan, who majored in History, become more focused and determined. Immaculata provided the kind of guidance and support that a lot of girls needed, Willis remembered, and she speculates that Brennan may have realized her leadership skills there and became confident enough to begin exercising them in earnest. Female managers were unusual at that time, but Brennan worked hard to get where she is now, Willis said.
For their part, Brennan’s family is thrilled for her. “We’re very, very
proud of her,” said her father, Jeremiah “Jerry” Brennan. “She’s a very level-headed person.”
Mail: mundane, yet marvelous
We all love opening the mailbox to find a card addressed to us in the familiar handwriting of a friend or family member. As nice as it is to receive mail, most of us don’t send mail as often as we used to. Fast, free electronic communication has largely replaced traditional hard-copy correspondence,
to the point that the dwindling number of letters we receive are now considered by many to be a special and particularly meaningful form of communication.
In many parts of the world, it’s a luxury to receive anything intact, unopened and on time in the mail. Packages sent in many countries get lost or stolen, whether due to a lack of accountability, infrastructure, or reliable transportation.
In her New York Times article “Why the Post Office Makes America Great,” Zeynep Tufekci, a Sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, who emigrated from Turkey, describes her initial shock at discovering that “you can order things online and expect them to be delivered.” Her friends back in Turkey thought she was lying when she told them mail gets picked up from every home in the
U.S. six days a week and arrives reliably at its destination. It seemed too much like magic to be true.
“Dependable infrastructure is magical not simply because it works, but also because it allows innovation to thrive, including much of the Internet-based economy that has grown in the past decade,” Tufekci writes. Online stores couldn’t do nearly as much business if people were worried about actually getting what they ordered. Even if consumers opted to have private companies ship their packages, those companies don’t deliver to every address in remote areas. FedEx and UPS often hand over their packages to the U.S. Postal Service for the last leg of the journey to locations outside of major cities.
What would we do without this kind of national infrastructure? “Of course,” Tufekci says, “infrastructure is also boring, so we get used to it and forget what a gift it truly is. I never do, maybe because I discovered it so late.”
Considering that the USPS doesn’t get a single tax dollar to support its universal mail service to every American home and business, this public service is even more of a gift. The Postal Service depends on the sale of postage, products, and services to fund its operations.
15 things you didn’t know about the U.S. Postal Service
1. It’s the world’s largest postal organization.
2. It has the country’s largest retail network—larger than McDonald’s, Starbucks and Walmart combined, domestically.
3. It processes and delivers 509 million pieces of mail every day, a total of 154 billion pieces last year. This amounts to 47 percent of the world’s mail.
4. The USPS reaches 155 million delivery points.
5. It has about 500,000 employees and 31,000 facilities.
6. Nearly 6,000 mail carriers are attacked by dogs each year.
7. More than 74,000 letter carriers drive to neighborhoods and then deliver mail on foot; more than 7,200 deliver solely on foot.
8. From 2007 to 2015, the USPS slashed its total facility energy use by more than 30 percent.
9. The Postal Service has two facilities in New York with green roofs, which save energy and reduce runoff into the municipal water system. The Los Angeles Processing and Distribution Center has 31,000 solar panels on its rooftop, making this Postal Service facility the largest building in that city that generates electricity through solar energy.
10. The USPS has a fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles, including the largest civilian fleet of alternative fuel-capable vehicles—more than 42,000.
11. Postal Service vehicles travel more than 1 billion miles a year—about 11 times the distance from the Earth to the sun.
12. Advanced machines can position letters, cancel stamps, read barcodes, and sort 36,000 pieces per hour.
13. The USPS is the world leader in optical character recognition technology, with machines reading nearly 98 percent of all hand-addressed letter mail.
14. The USPS sold 12 billion postage stamps last year.
15. Semi-postal stamps, which cost slightly more than regular stamps, raise money for causes designated by Congress. Four semi-postal stamps have been issued to date, with the 1998 breast cancer research stamp raising $81.8 million.
Changes and challenges
And this is where the challenge lies. Mail volume has declined more than 25 percent over the last 10 years, but legislation hasn’t provided enough flexibility in the USPS’s business model to address this sharp decline.
What’s more, Congress mandated in 2006 that the USPS prepay retiree health benefits. This adds billions of dollars to the organization’s annual budget, and the Postal Service has had to default on these payments for the last several years.
Even before she was named postmaster general, Brennan, who served as the USPS chief operating officer from 2011 to 2015, led the charge to respond aggressively to these financial challenges. She worked with postal employees to pursue multiple initiatives that maximized technology, increased workforce flexibility, re-worked the wage system, and conserved energy, resulting in cost reductions of about $15 billion per year.
Brennan is also working to increase revenue from package shipments through business partnerships. FedEx and UPS both compete and partner with the USPS—“coopetition,” as Brennan calls it. The Postal Service delivers hundreds of millions of FedEx and UPS packages to their final destinations, while the two companies transport Postal Service items on their planes.
“The Postal Service is speeding the pace of innovation, improving our competitive posture by offering new products, and pursuing large-scale efforts to lower our cost base and stabilize our systemic financial imbalances,” Brennan said in her recent testimony to the House of Representatives committee. “And we’re doing so against a backdrop of great change in technology use and consumer habits, and of rapidly rising expectations for delivery services.”
She continued, “However, our ability to continually change and improve to meet the evolving needs of the American economy and society depends upon our ability to operate with a financially sustainable business model.”
Simply put, the Postal Service has to pay for its extensive network—one that grew by more than a million new delivery points last year—with decreasing revenue. Brennan told the committee “…the expected growth in package volumes and revenues is not enough to make up for the massive loss of mail volume and revenue that used to be available to pay for our network costs.”
She publicly thanked the dedicated employees who helped the USPS
achieve controllable income last quarter. “But we cannot let this result mask
the financial challenges we face,” she added. “Our financial situation is serious,
but solvable. We are confident that we can return to financial stability through
the enactment of prudent legislative reform and a favorable resolution of the
10-year regulatory review.”
A post-Postal Service age? Not likely
As she encourages legislative action, Brennan is determined to continue offering innovations in products and services, to upgrade the USPS vehicle fleet and package sorting equipment, to invest in employee training and development, and to relentlessly improve efficiencies to keep postal products and services affordable.
Among these efforts is a nationwide implementation of a new service on the My USPS™ mobile app, coming in 2017, which will send emails to postal customers with pictures of the mail set to be delivered to them that day. In
the initial beta test, 70 percent of users opened their email notification every
day, indicating consumers’ high interest in making mail a part of their daily
“Even in an increasingly digital world, the Postal Service remains an essential part of the bedrock infrastructure of the economy,” Brennan said. She encourages businesses to use direct mail, which is still “the most direct pipeline to the consumer,” especially at a time when advertisers are increasingly noticing the so-called “digital ad blindness” of their target audiences.
Despite the challenges the Postal Service is facing, the organization is in good hands. When the Postal Service Board of Governors selected Brennan as the next postmaster general, Mickey D. Barnett, former chairman of the board, expressed his faith in her: “As the head of operations, Megan has led important initiatives to provide Sunday delivery services, improved tracking, and greater predictability and reliability … She is highly regarded throughout the Postal Service and among the broader community of our major customers and business partners—and rightly so.”
So buy those stamps and send those packages. And thank your local postal workers who, under the superb leadership of their talented postmaster general, make it possible for all of us to enjoy the everyday miracle of mail.