Delta State alum David Abney credits ‘willingness to do more than asked’ for his rise to CEO at UPS

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Published: June 11,2014

Tags: Business, education, Mississippi, ORION, transportation, UPS

David Abney aims to focus on international, tech and service. European Pressphoto Agency

David Abney aims to focus on international, tech and service. European Pressphoto Agency

It takes a lot of right turns to go from the Mississippi Delta to the top executive suite at United Parcel Service’s Sandy Springs, Ga., headquarters.

Right turns are among the top commandments handed to new drivers for the world’s largest package delivery service. They constitute the safest and fastest way to go from Point A to Point B, according to the company gospel.

David Abney started his right turns as a UPS delivery driver in Pascagoula after graduating from Delta State University with a business degree. Elevation to driver came after working nights on a UPS loading dock in his hometown of Greenwood while in college. He followed his stint as a driver with five years in the packing end of the operation.

By 1980, his right turns took him to the company’s Georgia HQ and a career tract that has the 58-year-old executive slated to take over as CEO of the $53 billion global logistics and package delivery operation on Sept. 1.  Abney, who has been COO the past seven years, replaces the retiring Scott Davis.

Davis, in a press statement on the announcement of Abney’s promotion, cited the Delta native’s ability to anticipate global trends and identify both risks and opportunities. Those attributes have proven invaluable as the company “navigated through challenging economic recovery periods during my tenure as CEO,” said Scott, who will become non-executive chairman after Sept. 1.

Abney does not have a lengthy list of things he thinks led to the increasingly important roles he took on at UPS, including the presidency of UPS International and before that the presidency of SonicAir, a same-day delivery service that signaled UPS’s move into the service parts sector,

In short, the executive rise came through “a willingness to do much more than I was asked to do,” Abney said in an interview just before catching a flight out of Atlanta Tuesday morning.

“Early on, some of my managers recognized something in me. They did a great job putting me in good positions, where I worked with and for a lot of good people.”

Today, he’s following the lead of the execs who recognized and supported his potential, he said. “I think I’m leading good people,” Abney said. “I give them support and training and get out of their way and let them do their jobs.”

Abney said he takes a lot of pride in the technological strides UPS has made, including ORION, or On-Road-Integrated Optimization and Navigation. The late 2013 rollout of the new system is designed to optimize 10,000 delivery routes by the end of this year, reducing miles driven and reinforcing UPS’s sustainability efforts, the company says.

The sophisticated ORION software combines customers’ shipping requirements with customized map data the company has compiled to provide UPS drivers with optimized routing instructions , UPS says.

The company expects to save 1.5 million gallons of fuel a year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 14,000 metric tons. “A reduction of just one mile each day per driver over the course of a year saves the company up to $50 million annually,” UPS said in a press statement.

Noted Abney: “If you have 80,000 to 90,000 drivers and you save just one mile from each, you can see the big savings that will follow.”

Further, ORION gives the customer more control of the delivery, including when and where the delivery is to be made even as it is en route to its original destination. “We’re using technology in a way that our competitors can’t match,” Abney said.

He said through his role as COO and previous to that president of UPS International, he gained an appreciation for the immensity of global trade and the tremendous potential for U.S. companies in general and UPPS in particular to participate in it. He is especially excited about the potential for UPS serving businesses in emerging markets such as China, Vietnam and India and becoming a logistical partner in trade that develops between the emerging markets.

“We’re connecting customers anywhere in the world,” he said, predicting an explosion in the growth of middle-income earners over the next 20 years in emerging-market countries.

Abney said he is unsettled, however, by growing support for trade protectionism in the United States and the government’s hesitancy to enact new free trade agreements.. “People are trying to protect jobs,” he conceded, but added: “A message that we have in Washington is that the United States is only 5 percent of the world’s population. If we start putting in protective measures, then we are limiting our markets.

“Can we reach these emerging markets and the emerging middle class? These trade agreements are so important” to ensuring that happens, he said.

It is “such a worry,” Abney added, “that our government is not looking at the value of global trade.”

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