As the US's top mailman, Casey delivers

`YOU don't really need to know how to cancel a stamp.'' Albert V. Casey, a garrulous Bostonian who talks with his hands and who once turned around the fortunes of a deficit-ridden airline within a nine-month period, is reflecting on his present position: the nation's postmaster general.

``I was with the airlines for 11 years,'' says Mr. Casey, who retired last year as chairman and chief executive officer of American Airlines, ``and I never learned how the airplanes go up in the air.''

His knowledge of the job is a point on which he is somewhat sensitive -- especially given the shortness of his tenure. In an interview here last Friday -- one of only a handful he has given since the end of his first week in office -- he reaffirmed his intention to leave the United States Postal Service (USPS) Aug. 15, barely eight months after having been sworn in Jan. 6. He plans to take up a professorship at the business school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Casey's critics accuse him of being an ``instant expert'' -- a man who swept into office after the USPS board of governors had summarily dismissed the previous postmaster general, Paul N. Carlin, and who immediately launched a wholesale reorganization. They say Casey's 2,100-position shake-up, which went into effect this past weekend and is the subject of a major newspaper advertising campaign this week, has come dangerously fast.

``It's hard to learn a $30 billion business in a couple of weeks,'' says Michael Cavanagh, a Washington-based consultant on postal matters, ``and then put the decisionmaking process into high gear simply because you know you're going to leave.''

But Casey's supporters, who are legion, credit him with doing what Mr. Carlin seems not to have done: make tough decisions fast, to put the 783,000-employee USPS -- the largest business organization in the nation -- onto a sound footing after last year's disappointing $251 million deficit.

``Casey has a boldness about him that you'd never get from a traditional career employee [with the USPS],'' says Van H. Seagraves, publisher of the Business Mailers Review, a fortnightly newsletter. ``He is liked very much by top postal managers,'' Mr. Seagraves adds, ``because he makes decisions quickly.''

On one point both sides agree: His internal reorganization of the Postal Service is the most sweeping since 1970, when the Postal Reorganization Act turned a sprawling, tax-guzzling bureaucracy into a self-supporting, government-owned business.

While he refuses to take credit for this year's brisk financial upturn -- attributing it largely to a growing, noninflationary economy and to several labor practices put into effect before he arrived -- he does admit that the picture has brightened considerably. He predicts a year-end surplus in the range of $400 million to $425 million.

So what's the secret of his successful stint at the helm?

``There's no mysterious, wonderful, new thing here,'' says Casey, who has worked for such large corporations as Southern Pacific Railway, the Railway Express Agency, and the Times Mirror Company, after receiving his MBA from Harvard. ``It's just the application of standard corporate principles and practices.''

To help guide the board of governors in its search for his replacement, he wrote a paper for it titled ``Observations Regarding the Postmaster General.'' In it, he says, ``I laid down the strengths of character, the business experience, the type of person for this job.''

``The first thing that anybody in this job must have is energy,'' he says. ``You serve so many constituencies, you've got so much to do, and you can't just delegate and walk away.''

Another requirement, he says, is ``to have been associated with an enormous organization.''

``You don't have to know every bit of the job -- don't waste your time,'' he says. What a manager learns by running a giant corporation, he says, is that ``you cannot compromise! You can't bend to satisfy a particular union, congressman, or governor. You must be able to hold your head high in front of everyone [and] explain to them why you can't do [special favors].''

Casey, most observers say, has these characteristics in abundance. He works 12-hour days, holds meetings on Saturdays at his office and Sundays in his home, and has taken only two weekends off since arriving in January.

Nor, apparently, is he willing to ``bend'' to special interests. ``He's clean as the driven snow,'' says publisher Seagraves, despite a storm that blew up around Casey shortly after his arrival concerning a reputed link with Recognition Equipment Inc. (REI) of Irving, Texas, a leading bidder for supplying new sorting equipment to the USPS. Casey has gone to great lengths to separate himself from the decisionmaking process involving the purchase.

Others connected with that contract, unfortunately, have been less scrupulous. On May 31, the vice-chairman of the board of governors, Peter E. Voss, pleaded guilty to overbilling the USPS for travel expenses and to receiving kickbacks for efforts to steer the contract toward REI.

Casey, who has had disagreements with the board, in general, and with Mr. Voss, in particular, over some governors' desires to ``micro-manage'' the Postal Service's day-to-day operations, describes Voss's actions as ``revolting, disgusting, shameful, disgraceful.'' But he expects no great reforms. ``The structure, I genuinely believe, is OK,'' he says, noting that the crime was uncovered from within by USPS inspectors alone.

The Voss case has also drawn more-than-ordinary attention to two nearly identical bills, sponsored by Rep. William D. Ford (D) of Michigan and Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska. The legislation, among other things, would make the postmaster general a presidential appointee. At present the selection is made by the board, with Senate confirmation.

Casey supports most of the provisions. But he notes that ``I heartily disagree'' with the presidential appointment idea. ``I want to remove the Post Office entirely from the political arena,'' he says.

Other observers see a familiar turf fight building, with members of Congress trying to muscle in and influence USPS policy and purchasing as they once did with the old Post Office Department.

What does Casey see in the future for the USPS? For one thing, a five-year, $9 billion capital-investment program. The current advertising campaign, trumpeting ``the new US Postal Service'' and showing a baby eagle bursting from an egg, refers to the 25,000 new stamp-vending machines already installed around the nation and mentions (without using the numbers) the $1.1 billion contract for 99,150 new vans to replace the old familiar Jeeps -- the largest vehicle purchase in the history of the US mail.

Casey also sees changes in the board, whose members are appointed by the president. Would he like to fill the Voss vacancy? ``I don't think so,'' he says. ``It's too demanding. But I'll stay in touch.''

``I'll be as available as they want me,'' he says. Then, with a gravelly chuckle, he adds, ``But you better not say that!''

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