David Abney started working for UPS 40 years ago, part time. He loaded trucks at night and studied business during the day at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. He needed the job: A scholarship covered his tuition but not dates with his high school sweetheart.
Abney, the first in his family to attend college, couldn’t afford to live on campus. He often skipped the 45-minute commute home and slept on couches in the school’s union — the portrait of a scrappy dreamer, his friends say.
“I told him, ‘One day, we’re going to bronze one of those couches and present it to you,” said Keith Fulcher, executive director of Delta’s alumni association. “This is where it all started. On the couches. Right here.”
On Friday, Abney was named the next chief executive of UPS, the world’s largest package delivery company, succeeding D. Scott Davis on Sept. 1. “The company has provided me tremendous opportunity, amazing career experiences and rewarding professional development,” Abney, 58, said in a statement. He was not available for an interview Friday.
His storybook ascension, from minimum wage to millionaire, has precedent. Former McDonald’s chief executive James Skinner started his career as a restaurant manager trainee. Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon’s first job was unloading trucks at an Arkansas distribution center. General Motors chief Mary T. Barra joined the company as an 18-year-old intern.
That’s happening less and less in America, but experts say it shouldn’t. Internal mobility began to decline as unions lost power in the 1980s and ’90s, said Matthew Bidwell, who teaches management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. People started hopping around more.
That’s not good for business, according to a study he published in 2011.
“It can take years to understand how a company works, to understand the culture,” Bidwell said. “You build the relationships you need. You gain connections inside the company to get things done.”
Promoting internally is also cheaper, Bidwell said. Companies tend to spend more on new hires.
“So, now, we’re seeing more companies starting to talk about How do we increase internal mobility? A strong company culture, I think, is one answer.”
The culture of internal promotion remains strong at UPS. Dan McMackin, a 53-year-old UPS spokesman in Atlanta, started loading trucks for the company in high school. He held on to his part-time job, graduated college and began driving routes in Wisconsin, bagging a $60,000 salary.
“I saw that the bulk of the management folks here came from within,” he said. “It’s atypical not to. And that’s inspiring. We have such deep bench strength because employees are nurtured from Day One.”
Abney, McMackin said, is a shining example. “He had such a rich tapestry of experiences. He always had support.”
After graduating from Delta in 1976, Abney became a package car driver for UPS in west Mississippi. He married his high school sweetheart, Sherry. He became a manager.
“The more I learned about UPS’s business, the more intrigued I became by the fast-paced discipline against [the] deadline nature of it,” he told the school’s alumni magazine in 2007. “It required a lot of organization skills and teamwork, and that appealed to me.”
Abney took jobs in Tennessee, New Jersey and Arizona before becoming head of the company’s international operations.
He traveled the world, started hosting an annual global business symposium at his alma mater and, in 2007, became chief operating officer.
“He wanted kids in the Delta to rub elbows with business leaders and see the possibilities for their own careers,” said Fulcher, who met Abney 14 years ago. “He told them: You have to work hard. You have to put in extra hours. That’s what it takes to get what you want in life.”
Jeff Rosensweig, an associate professor of international business and finance at Emory University, invited Abney to lead a class with his MBA students. They became friends, bonding over Elvis Presley.
“One of David’s many admirable traits is that success has never gone to his head,” Rosensweig said. “His mixes his deep breadth of knowledge with this humility. He has no plans to leave his roots behind him.”
The newly crowned chief executive’s biggest hobby, Fulcher said, lines the walls of his Georgia home. He collects autographed portraits of Mississippi athletes who made it to the professional leagues. (His favorite: Dave “Boo” Ferriss, who played for the Red Sox and returned to the Delta to coach.) Abney admires folks who start with nothing and climb.