The cheeky British press is struggling to attach a catchy label to Moya Greene, the Newfoundlander appointed last year as the CEO of Royal Mail, the beloved, though enfeebled, institution that taught the world how to deliver letters.
The Morning Star opted for “Darth Vader,” picking up on the term allegedly used by the unions at Canada Post, her last employer, to describe the lady with an enthusiasm for cost cutting. The Daily Mail came up with “compact blonde Canadian” and called her “garrulous.”
When I arrive at Refettorio, the vaguely Italian restaurant next to the Royal Mail Group’s executive offices at Blackfriars, London, my hope is that “booming voice” could be added to the sketch of the reportedly chatty, diminutive chief postie. That’s because the place is loud and the wooden dining tables laughably wide. I wonder if they double as Ping-Pong tables in the off hours. Would I be able to hear her from such a distance?
I am not disappointed. Ms. Greene, 57, has a resonant, clear voice and has the gift of the gab. Too bad she has a penchant for biz-speak. Mail sorting machines are “sortation” machines; problems are “challenges.”
What does disappoint me is her Newfoundland accent, or lack thereof. There is not a trace. “My mother is a teacher and she thought you didn’t need to announce whence you came when you opened your mouth,” she says. “She taught us to speak properly. I can put the accent on, but I never had it.”
Ms. Greene, a lawyer by training, is a curious and largely unknown commodity in Britain. She is the first woman and first non-Brit to run Royal Mail since Henry VIII established a “Master of the Posts” in the early 16th century. She almost never gives interviews and, at one point in our lunch, interrupts the flow to wonder aloud about the wisdom of talking to The Globe and Mail ahead of the British press.
Her relative obscurity will not last long, for Royal Mail, whose core letters business is in near free-fall, is about to go through wrenching changes that should ultimately result in its privatization by 2015, perhaps even earlier. The presale overhaul will see the number of employees, now about 163,000, down from 230,000 a decade ago, fall perhaps by another 25,000, maybe more. Delivery offices will be shut by the score. The automation drive will have to ramp up and, crucially, new sources of revenue will have to be found to replace the dying business of dropping letters and bills through mail slots.
And it all has to be done without violating Royal Mail’s universal service obligation – the requirement to deliver letters through wet and wind six days a week to the United Kingdom’s 29 million addresses for the bargain price of 46 pence (74¢).
Ms. Greene orders small portions, in keeping with her trim physique. She starts with Burrata Pugliese (made from porcelain-white mozzarella and cream), followed by a tagliatelle pasta dish. I go for the beef carpaccio and the pan-fried John Dory. It’s a busy day for her – her driver waits outside – so we dispense with wine. Sparkling water will do and never mind the desserts.
While Britain may wonder how a rank outsider landed the top job at the country’s biggest government-owned company, there is little doubt that she is qualified, at least on paper. She is one of those rare executives who has immersed herself in both the government and corporate worlds and glides easily between the two.
The divorced mother of one has worked, on the corporate side, in senior positions at TD Securities, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Bombardier. On the government side, she has had careers at seven federal ministries and at Canada Post, where she was CEO from 2005 until she went to Royal Mail 15 months ago.
She says her favourite corporate job was TD Securities, where she was managing director of infrastructure finance. She raves about her time at Transport Canada where, under then-minister Doug Young in the 1990s, she was a key figure in the privatization of Canadian National Railway and the elimination of the Crow Rate rail subsidy for farmers. “We changed everything,” she says. “It was heady times.”
Her dual-universe experience should come in handy, for Royal Mail is undergoing its biggest overhaul in centuries as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government prepares to deliver it (save the Post Office retail shops themselves) to private shareholders.
Royal Mail is a mess. It has reported negative cash flow for four years running and there’s a £4.5-billion hole in its pension plan. The core letters and parcels delivery service in the U.K. lost £120-million in the 2010-11 financial year. Blame customers who have decided that communicating by Twitter, Facebook and e-mail is more convenient that snail mail. Middling profits at its other divisions – the Post Office branches themselves and the national and international parcels businesses – allowed the company to eke out a small operating profit, after modernization costs.
“The company has been in a very fragile state for a long time and it’s late in undertaking its modernization,” she says. “The core business is in structural decline and the regulatory approach here is very difficult.”
She has a four-stage plan to stem the rot.
The first is obvious – aggressive cost cutting, to the point that CWU, the postal workers union, has warned of a strike if the cuts get nasty. The second, automation, is equally obvious. Most of Royal Mail’s 60-million-plus daily items are still sorted manually. The third is to eliminate theregulation, designed to encourage competition, that requires Royal Mail to process and deliver competitors’ mail even if it means doing so at a loss.
The fourth, revenue diversification, is where things get interesting. Ms. Greene is thinking of new ways to exploit the U.K.’s biggest boots-on-the-ground network. “This isn’t simply a postal business any more,” she says. “Postal alone won’t pay the bills. We have to be pretty creative on how to lever our network in a completely competitive market.”
One example that holds promise is where the post delivery employees would become the final link in an electronic retailing system. As the letters business falls off a cliff, the parcels side is growing, thanks to the rise of the e-retailers. The problem is that the customers typically have to pay the retailer before their parcel is delivered, which can make them uncomfortable.
Ms. Greene’s idea is to equip the posties with electronic gadgets that would confirm delivery before payment is made. “That would be a very big boost for e-retailing,” she says. “Lots of people will not buy online because they don’t want to give their credit card details to retailers they don’t trust. But that’s not true of Royal Mail. The basis of our brand is that we are totally trusted.”
There is a lot of government pressure on Ms. Greene to whip Royal Mail into shape so it can be detached from the state funding teat. The pressure is all the greater given her income. Last year, she collected £637,000 in salary and bonuses, or more than four times the Prime Minister’s salary. “I love my job,” she says. Indeed.
Born in St. John's, the daughter of a special education teacher and a fix-it shop owner.
Divorced, with one daughter.
Graduate of Memorial
University and Osgoode Hall law school.
You name it in government and the corporate world, she's done it.
Has held senior federal government positions in seven ministries, including Transport Canada, where she was assistant deputy minister.
On the corporate side, has had career stops at TD Securities, CIBC and Bombardier.
Became CEO of Canada Post in 2005, and CEO of Royal Mail Group in 2010.
Board member of Tim Hortons and Purolator Courier.
Lives in Fulham, London.
Likes country walks. Reads poetry. Current favourites are e.e. cummings and Ted Hughes.
Has a driver, claiming she is “the worst driver on the planet.”
Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version contained a reference to the possible privatization of the Royal Mail that has been clarified in this online version.