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Postmaster General: A Stamp of Approval in Some Quarters

December 25, 1989|JACQUELINE TRESCOTT | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — 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.

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