Deepak Chopra sighs wistfully as he walks through the grand lobby of the Royal Ontario Museum. Parents are wrangling their children, small groups are clustered around exhibits and security guards are chasing down stragglers who may or may not have paid to enter the nearly 100-year-old museum.
After decades of being a sleepy, second-choice tourist attraction, the place is busy. And as a student of history, the museum’s revitalization fills Mr. Chopra with hope: If a stuffy building full of skeletons and 500-year-old cutlery can reinvent itself for a digital age, he says, so too can the country’s embattled postal service.
“By any definition museums should be obsolete by now because of things like 3-D television and the Internet,” he says. “Yet here you see a museum going through a major renaissance. What is it that keeps certain institutions relevant? That is the most fascinating thing that attracted me to this opportunity.”
Alas, saving Canada’s postal system isn’t quite the same as saving a museum, even if both institutions have a particular obsession with the way things used to be. Mr. Chopra – who has only been on the job for a year – finds himself in a daily struggle to convince his employees (and more importantly their unions) that they are living in the past.
Mail volume to the average Canadian home has dropped 17 per cent in the last seven years. At the same time, its important parcel delivery service has faced heightened competition from nimble competitors anxious to steal business from the Crown corporation. If Canada Post is going to exist 10 years from now – something even Mr. Chopra isn’t willing to guarantee – he’ll need to drag them into the present with less-generous pension plans, more-flexible wage structures and greater flexibility around scheduling and delivery.
“We have an opportunity to create a window here and create the right conditions from a cost structure, work flexibility and pension perspective to free up some cash to invest in all the things we need to do that are not free,” he says. “If we can do this, then I see a future. But if we spend the next three years bickering over these issues, it won’t be easy to catch up with our competition. And it is already hard enough to catch up.”
Mr. Chopra’s appraisal of Canada Post’s fiscal situation could put many executives off their lunch, but in between bits of a chicken pot pie he enthusiastically rattles off his main concerns.
The mail service’s last reported annual pension deficit was $4.7-billion.
There are 200,000 new houses built in Canada every year, and he has to send someone to deliver mail to each new house whether they receive paper bills or not (most don’t). And those unionized employees are paid well (they top out around $24.94 an hour) and retire early – at 55-years-old or 25 years of service, whichever comes first.
“We can’t bring in people with the same golden packages we did when we were on a 40-year bull run,” he says, pausing only to take a small sip of his Coca-Cola. “Look, in the past we could do whatever we wanted and the money just kept on coming. All we had to do was sit back. Those days are over.”
Meanwhile, Canada Post started piling up losses last year for the first time in 17 years. The most recent quarter saw $163-million shortfall for the Canada Post Group of Companies, largely due to the costs associated with an employment equity ruling from the Supreme Court. The previous quarter saw a $35-million loss.
Mr. Chopra took over the top job last year after spending most of his career at Pitney Bowes Canada. Soft spoken and unfailingly polite, his voice rises as he outlines the way he hopes to transform the company through his five-year term. Assuming he can figure out the pension riddle and come to terms with his unions, Canada Post plans to invest heavily in a plan that would see the company essentially reinvent itself as a trusted digital storehouse. Every Canadian could have their own secure website where all of their mail was delivered – bills, digital magazines, flyers.