THE 70th postmaster general of the United States is scything his way through the bureaucracy with cuts that are designed to end a $2 billion deficit and save the republic from a 35-cent first-class stamp.
Marvin T. Runyon sits back in his vast blue-and-gold office overlooking the Potomac and talks about why he's sure he can do it. "Well, we're looking at reducing overhead by about 30,000 positions, and we're offering retirement incentives for anybody who's eligible for retirement, about 40,000 people. And, gosh, 130,000 are eligible for special early retirement.... That 30,000 people will affect a saving of somewhere about $1.5 billion....
"We will have other savings that go along with that, to help get toward the $2 billion deficit we were talking about. Yes, we'll get to the $2 billion. It's not all going to be on personnel costs, though, it will have to be on other things, too. For example, with 30,000 less people, we'll have 30,000 less desks, which occupy space. We have leases on space, and some of those leases will have to be canceled."
This is the executive who clocked 37 years with the Ford Motor Company, starting on the assembly line and retiring early as a vice president overseeing 29 plants and 120,000 employees. From that he became president and CEO of Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corporation USA. Stabilized TVA rates
His next job, chairman of the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, brought him fame. The TVA was then $18 billion in debt and had made customers furious by raising rates 10 percent a year for 20 years. He took the job in 1988; rates have remained stable ever since. He cut expenses at TVA by about 40 percent and sliced the agency's payroll from 35,000 people to 21,000.
His cuts at the Post Office so far have included reducing the number of top brass from 42 assistant postmasters general to 22, then changing their title to vice presidents. He is also dealing with two formidable unions, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the American Postal Workers Union.
"I've met with the heads of those two unions at least four times, talking with them about what we're doing, telling them how we're going to do it, before we did it. And I think they pretty well agree with the steps that we're taking; we're starting at the top, and we're reducing the bureaucracy." Letter carriers stay
He points out, "What we're doing does not in any way eliminate letter carriers, for example.... We're trying to work with them. We would like to look upon them as allies, and not adversaries. We're all in this together. If the Postal Service is successful, then we all succeed. If we become non-competitive, which we're doing rather rapidly ... then there are less jobs for everybody."
He does face opposition. As Postmaster Runyon notes, "At one point this week there was supposed to be a secret board meeting going on in this building of all the governors. At the conclusion of the meeting they [allegedly] had asked me to leave, and I was not supposed to be back on Friday morning." He pauses, goes on in an even tone: "Of course, I was back in the building on Friday morning, met with the board of governors. There was just no reason for that [story]. I would have no idea how something like
that would start. So I don't know why that happens, except that rumors happen."
Marvin Runyon is a slender man with a full head of hair. He wears a medium-blue suit, pale blue shirt, blue and yellow abstract tie. His eyes are a mild blue, his face and white hair backlighted by the late afternoon sun beaming in with particular brilliance from the river outside.
He tells a brief story about himself that throws even more light on him: At Ford, his boss said he'd like him to figure out how to do a changeover, which normally took six weeks to two months, in just one week. Runyon upped the ante: He told his men to "make a changeover on a weekend. I said `don't tell me we can't do it, just figure out how to do it, and come back and tell me. Don't tell me it can't be done, 'cause I know how to do it.' "
The 100 expert managers involved later found it could indeed be done in a weekend, and they did it. "And in fact we saved $65 million. Now think about what we got for that.... That's a case of where you ask the people how do you do it.... So I follow that practice, I followed it there, I followed it at Nissan, I followed it at TVA, and I'm going to follow it here....
"You have to have accountability in our jobs, and you have to have credibility in our jobs." Feels for people
During his time at TVA, his dexterity in cutting had earned him the nickname "Carvin' Marvin." How does he feel about the personal toll on people who have been cut? "Well, I feel very bad ... their job goes away. Have I ever lost a job?
"Yes, I've worked myself out of a job several times. But ... if we do not get ourselves competitive as an organization there'll be 730,000 of us without a job.... The `Carvin Marvin' thing, I don't really think that's a deserved name. I care about people. I think you go back and look at the programs we put in place at TVA for example, to take care of people, we did all kinds of things to help them relocate. At one time we had over 7,500 jobs that were eliminated ... there were only 3,000 that actually ha d to leave. The others chose to leave with incentive programs.
"So we care about people. We care about the 700,000 that are still going to be here with a much more secure job. But it's really difficult to tell a person who through no fault of their own that their job is not there anymore."
He speaks softly, this transplanted Texan who is an engineering graduate of Texas A&M University.