Postmaster General: A Stamp of Approval in Some Quarters


When Anthony M. Frank was president of the country’s sixth-largest savings and loan, he never visited his mail room.

After he was appointed postmaster general last year, a reporter for a trade magazine decided to inspect the S&L;'s mail room. “My heart was in my mouth. I was saying, ‘Yes, what was it like?’ I didn’t ever think about what happened when I pulled that slot. I never thought about it,” says Frank.

Now Frank, with the stern visage of Benjamin Franklin staring over the credenza behind his office desk, has developed his “Frankisms” about the world beyond the service windows.

Fact No. 1, said flatly and without any hesitation: “No one else goes to everyone’s home every day six days a week.”

But Frank knows he has walked into one of the country’s most criticized jobs, plagued by huge revenue losses, wobbly morale and charges of inept management. He is the sixth postmaster general in five years. One of Frank’s counteroffensives is an ease with numbers that befits an economist, delivered at a dizzying pace. It’s a habit that makes the morning television interviewers blink.


Fact No. 2: Those 525 million letters delivered daily, he says, are sent “at 23 cents average revenue and they are handled by people who make 30 cents a minute. So that is quite a challenge to get a 23-cent piece of paper through all those hands that cost 30 cents a minute.”

Frank explains the postal arithmetic: “You divide all the items and the money we make and it comes out 23 cents. Our average experienced employee costs--doesn’t make, but costs --$20 an hour. That’s 33 cents a minute. We handle that little piece of paper between one and 14 times. So we make a house call for 25 cents.”

This labor is all complicated by the rush of the Christmas season. One Monday, the Monday before Christmas, is traditionally the busiest day of the year--nearly 600 million cards and letters. “We probably do in a two-week period one-tenth of our annual volume,” says Frank.

Also, most of the Christmas mail is sorted by hand, then fed through stamp-canceling machines. In normal times, a good portion of the mail is metered and organized by ZIP code by businesses, making the process faster. In addition, at Christmas the number of packages increases, and the postal service depends on commercial airplanes already burdened by holiday passenger volume.

Then there’s an enormous increase in military mail, plus the 2 million letters to Santa that are generated through a Coca-Cola promotion. “Then before you know it the income tax forms go out. Then you have the white sales. It doesn’t let up. Of course our employees would like to work the least overtime and have the most time off during the holidays,” says the overseer of the largest civilian office in the world.

The U.S. Postal Service delivers 41% of the world’s mail, more than the next eight national services combined and for less than the fees in most industrialized countries. The service has 40,000 facilities, five for every McDonald’s.

For their part, Anthony and Gay Frank sent out 535 cards--almost all with handwritten notes--from their home in Belvedere, eight miles outside San Francisco. (He also has a place in Washington.) Frank, a tall man with silver-gray hair and blue eyes, mailed 487 cards from his office. He notes wryly that the family didn’t send any packages and hasn’t received any--yet.

The Franks, who have two adult children, celebrate Christmas twice--at home Christmas Eve and with in-laws Christmas Day. Frank, 58, was born in Berlin and has many memories of the different Germanys. His father, Lother Frank, was one of the first people imprisoned by Hitler in 1933, because he refused to give up his bank. His mother’s uncle had been minister of the interior--the police agency--under the Weimar Republic. He spoke out against Hitler and fled with his family to Brazil.

“I remember being on the bus and my mother and I had to get off because Hitler was going by. I remember going to the ’36 Olympics and they had exhibition baseball. The Germans (who didn’t like the sport) were chanting, ‘We got a nose full of baseball.’ I remember going to the visa agency and there were dozens of people crying because they couldn’t get out,” recalls Frank, whose parents are Jewish.

At age 6, Frank and his family moved to the United States. His mother, Elisabeth, found a teaching job at Bryn Mawr. His father, who had a doctorate in economics from Oxford University, got a job as a messenger on Wall Street for $12 a week. Frank lived with his mother in Philadelphia. Soon the family moved to California when Frank’s father became financial adviser to many artistic exiles, such as Thomas Mann and Bruno Walter.

Frank grew up in Hollywood, and as he tells this part of his immigrant’s tale, he pauses to point out, “You can’t do anything more indigenous than that.” He attended Hollywood High with Mitzi Gaynor and Stuart Whitman and then attended Dartmouth with director Bob Rafelson of “Five Easy Pieces,” director James Goldstone of “Winning” and “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” and David Picker, former head of United Artists.

During World War II, Frank served in the Army as a military intelligence officer on the German border (he now enjoys the postmaster’s title of general since he was only a corporal then). Since then, he has been back and forth to his native Germany, most notably as an envoy for Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. His task was to try to get the East Germans to withstand Soviet pressure not to participate in the games.

Because of his personal history and experiences, Frank has had strong reactions to recent events in Eastern Europe. “To me the biggest surprise is the failure to indoctrinate the children. They are in the Young Pioneers. They wear red neckerchiefs. They are inoculated from a very early age to be less a part of the family, more a part of the state, to believe in the socialist ideals and so on. None of it took,” says Frank. “It says there is an innate thirst for personal liberty that you can’t brainwash. There is something innate in human beings, maybe as strong as the mating urge and all the things that drive us, you can’t submerge. I cried.”

Before Frank’s appointment in Washington, he was chairman and chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based First Nationwide Financial Corp., which earned profits during all of his 17 years as chairman. There are few comparisons between that job and his nonpartisan appointment, says the registered Democrat. For one, each job “depended on tiny, competitive, one-on-one transactions,” he says. Now, Frank spends a lot more time on public relations, popping into post offices all around the country. “People are hungry out in the field. Some of them can tell you the last time a postmaster general was there. ‘We had Jim Farley and I remember he said . . . ' and I’m thinking, good Lord, Jim Farley.”

Farley was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s postal chief from 1933 to 1940.

The efficiency of the post office is often the brunt of jokes, but the postmaster has become skillful at turning the tables. “I am always asked, ‘Well, how are you going to fix the post office?’ Once in a while I wonder if I should give everyone a free vacation to Italy so they can come back and hug me. I can always tell who has been in Italy. They say, ‘Let me hug you,’ and I say, ‘You’ve been to Italy, haven’t you?’ The answer: ‘I beat my letter back from Italy by two weeks.’ You know what the Italians do? They sneak at night into the Vatican and use their mail room.”

He hesitates a minute but then decides to tell another story about the user-friendly nature of the U.S. post office. Frank bounds from his dining room table in Washington to get a letter mailed from the Soviet Union to make another point. “This is the panty hose theory of mail. One size fits all,” he says, explaining the de rigueur envelope and printing size on the letter.

Despite complaints about the service, most of his critics are generally friendly. “He is articulate, charming and sophisticated,” says Van H. Seagraves, the publisher of Business Mailers Review. “He is far and away the best postmaster general in my living memory,” says John Crutcher, a member of the Postal Rate Commission. “His calm demeanor and his approach to life is very agreeable, and that is partly responsible for his rapport with the unions and management organizations.”

Next year is going to be the real test for Frank. Within a few months, the four major labor unions will start bargaining for a new contract, and hearings on rate changes will begin. The increase--"two more Christmases under the old rates,” is Frank’s promise--will provoke some grumbling, but there are some who believe the overall problems could be solved by a rate increase.

Yet, the critics have been vocal about the service’s anticipated $1.6 billion deficit this year; the lack of payoffs from the more than $1 billion spent on automation; the military structure and rigidity of its work rules, and other signs of inefficiency, such as resistance to the use of part-time employees. “The ongoing story is why hasn’t he thrown out those operating people who are responsible for the agency’s dismal performance?” says Seagraves. “He’s the most promising postmaster in 20 years, but the promises haven’t been fulfilled.”

Generally, Frank is praised for lifting morale and cutting grievances in some regions by 50%. “I think there is on the whole good feelings,” says Frank. He initiated a program to have the large postal customers put bar codes on letters, along with the nine-digit ZIP code, and to presort the ZIP codes. “It will reduce the amount of machinery and provide investments for retraining. . . . It is coming but it is not a sharp, dramatic turnaround. I think we have some 13,000 fewer employees than we did five months ago without layoffs, without attrition and handling more volume. The new automation is starting to take hold but we have a long way to go.” Those who left account for only 1.1% of the agency’s work force while new hires number more than 5,000 people.

So far, the case of the Elvis stamp has been Frank’s most public Waterloo.

Just days into his tenure, Frank said Presley had died from a drug overdose and didn’t deserve a stamp. “A congressman from Memphis wrote me an aggrieved note saying, “You are going around saying Elvis died of an illegal drug overdose. That is not true: He died of a legal drug overdose,” says Frank. The debate splintered again over whether the singer should be portrayed as fat or thin. And of course the fans who believe he is still alive and therefore disqualified for a postage stamp were heard from.

“Debating over who goes on a stamp is one of the fun parts of the job,” says Frank.

Now, after long thought and the fans’ energetic lobbying, he is changing his mind.

He has decided to consult with drug policy director “Bill Bennett and see if we do something about Elvis Presley, will it undermine his efforts. My own feeling is that the man’s following, his musical achievements and his death more than 10 years ago all qualify him to be on a stamp. My own feeling is that the way he died is a valuable lesson to the youth of America. We would still have his music if he hadn’t abused himself.”