Postmaster General John E. Potter discusses retirement and his successor

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 8:37 PM

Reaching the minimum retirement age - and not declining mail volume, sinking profits or an uncooperative Congress - triggered John E. "Jack" Potter's retirement as postmaster general after nine years, he said Tuesday while voicing support for his chosen successor, Deputy Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe.

"Every civil service employee has a target, and my target was to reach 55 and then move on to do other things," Potter said in an interview. Federal employees and postal workers with at least 25 years of experience may retire as early as 55. Potter joined USPS in 1978 and took the top job in June 2001.

"If you'd ask my wife what was my goal when I started as PMG, it was 'Gee, it'd be great if I hit my 55th birthday and retire,' " he said. "And to be quite frank with you, being the longest-serving PMG since 1814, that was a significant goal. I consider myself to have accomplished my goal and to leave in a time frame that I set when I took the job."

Potter's career highlights include the mail agency's improved performance, consistent on-time deliveries and "getting the entire organization focused on customers and making them our highest priority," Potter said.

Potter hasn't decided what he'll do next, he said.

"We've always been concerned about this day, but this was his decision," said Board of Governors Chairman Louis J. Giuliano.

The board consulted with a head-hunting firm before settling on Donahoe, who has served in the dual roles of deputy postmaster general and chief operating officer. Those positions will be divided between two people to be named later, Giuliano said.

Donahoe was unavailable for an interview Tuesday, but last year he backed Potter's calls for legislation that would allow postal executives to make decisions about closing post offices, setting prices and delivery schedules without political interference.

"Leave us alone. Providing access to the American public is a critical thing, we know that," Donahoe said in a 2009 interview. "I think that Congress should rest easy that everybody here - our board of governors or leaders in our organization - wants to do the right things."

"We're not going to do things to kill this organization - far from it," Donahoe said. "I grew up in Pittsburgh. I watched the steel mills go away. My mom and dad worked for General Motors. I watched General Motors go away. We will not let that happen in this organization."

Donahoe is especially well-versed in the operational details of mail delivery and is seeking ways to expand into Office Depot stores, supermarkets and pharmacies that could sell stamps from machines or offer limited postal services.

"The focus now is not so much on the facilities, it's how do you provide access to a changing demand for the American people?" Donahoe said. Upgrades to the USPS Web site and merging the back-room operations of nearby post offices should help address the changing demand, he said.

Donahoe is also targeting long waits in line at the post office. "Our average wait time in line is under three minutes, but we still have places that are over 10 minutes," he said. "That's got to get fixed."

William Burrus, outgoing president of the American Postal Workers Union, was nonplussed with Donahoe's promotion, calling him "the architect" of cost cutting and operational changes "conducted in total secrecy" without labor consultation.

"Filling Potter's shoes will be a major challenge," Burrus said. "Postal workers are losing a strong advocate for the USPS and its employees."

APWU, the Postal Service's largest labor union, is locked in negotiations with postal officials over a new four-year contract.

Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, lauded Donahoe as "a career postal employee who is committed to working with the postal unions to ensure that the Postal Service continues to provide high quality and affordable service to America's mailers and citizens."

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