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Biography: James Casey, Founder of UPS

A high school dropout who started a bicycle messenger service in Seattle in 1907, James Casey lived long enough to see United Parcel Service become the world’s premier delivery company, which it remains today.

Casey was a humble man.  A lifelong bachelor, he lived for many years in a simple hotel room and always wore a dark suit and tie.  Neither money nor power interested him much.  Over the years he and his brother, who also worked at UPS, gave the bulk of their money, $438 million in all, to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, named after their mother.  (It grew to become the eleventh biggest foundation in the United States, with $2.7 billion in assets in 2003.)  Two things excited Casey-the people of UPS and the packages they delivered.  Casey understood that business was a collective enterprise and that UPS’s success depended upon winning the commitment of its people.  To that end, he began distributing shares in the company to its managers in the early 1920s.  “The basic principle that I believe has contributed more than any other to the building of our business,” he said in 1955, “is the ownership of our company by the people employed in it.”  Casey also paid attention to small things.  He had a knack for remembering people’s names and went out of his way to thank people for the work they did.  He took to heart the task of ensuring that every package entrusted to UPS was handled with care.

When a writer named Philip Hamburger was preparing a profile of Casey for the New Yorker in 1947, Casey send him a long letter in which he said:  “Remember that the story is to be about us-not about me.  For, in simple fairness to the many capable people who…have been associated with the company, no single individual should be given a disproportionate share of credit for the development of the United Parcel Service you are writing about today.”

More than half a century later, UPS executives mingle with drivers and sorters, office doors stay open and people answer their own phones.  People call each other by their first names, no matter their rank or title.  The company has no executive dining room, corporate jet or luxurious office suites for the brass.  Eskew does not even have his own personal assistant; instead, the twelve members of the management committee share a pool of four secretaries.  Like the other two thousand people who work at UPS headquarters, he eats lunch in the cafeteria.  Jim Casey would approve.  “There have been no supermen in our company-no star performers to hog the limelight,” he once said.  “There can be no glamour, no romance, no truly great success, unless shared in by all.”

In the New Yorker profile, Casey could not contain his delight during a visit to a department store where shipping clerks were hard at work:  “Deft fingers!  Deft fingers wrapping thousands of bundles.  Neatly tied!  Neatly addressed!  Stuffed with soft tissue paper!  What a treat!  Ah, packages!”

Step inside UPS’s gleaming headquarters, which opened in 1994 in a park like setting on the outskirts of Atlanta, and you can practically feel the presence of Jim Casey.  A large portrait of Casey hangs in the lobby, just around the corner from one of the company’s original package cars, a Model T Ford.  UPS executives quote Casey all the time, saying things like “Service is the sum of many little things done well” or “Our horizon is as distant as our mind’s eye wishes it to be.”  The company published a collection of Casey’s speeches and writing, and a highlight of the annual conference where about 225 top managers from UPS get together is a “Jim Casey evening” where the company’s CEO gives a talk inspired by Casey’s ideas.

Mike Eskew, who became CEO of UPS in 2002, said “Our vision is to be Jim Casey.  He knew every package and every customer.  We want to come full circle.”  UPS has a low-key but impressive commitment to philanthropy—the company and its employees gave $52 million one year to the United Way, more than any other company.  Eskew mused that perhaps UPS ought to crow a bit more about its charitable giving, if only to inspire others to be more generous.  Then he caught himself.  “Jim Casey taught us not to crow.  Jim Casey believed in quiet philanthropy,” Eskew said.  “I sure hate to disagree with Jim.”  There’s no danger of that.  Jim Casey died in 1983 at the age of 95, just a month after he retired from the UPS board of directors. 

Today UPS serves customers in more than 200 countries using 1,750 operating centers, 2,000 daily airplane flights, 88,000 vehicles and 360,000 people.  It has gone beyond transportation to offer what it calls “supply chain solutions,” a range of shipping-related businesses that include running a warehouse for Nike.com, repairing printers for Hewlett-Packard and storing and delivering spare computer parts for IBM.  In 2003, UPS generated $33.5 billion in revenues and $2.9 billion in profits.  The company is three times as profitable and far more efficient than archrival FedEx, which takes a different approach to business-it adamantly opposes unions, for example.  Because UPS still “runs the tightest ship in the shipping business,” it can offer a money-back guarantee on shipments to all addresses in the 48 contiguous U.S. states.

But, as Jim Casey liked to remind people, anybody can deliver packages.  What sets UPS apart is the culture that he built with every bit as much care as he devoted to package delivery.  UPS’s work ethic, its sense of community, the fact that the people who work there own the place, its policy of promoting from within, even its obsession with neatness-all of these can be traced back to the founder.

Source: Marc Gunther, Faith and Fortune, Crown Business 2004, p. 89

 





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