Postmen of the Caribbean
Mail & Express editor John Modd goes Head to Head with Michael Gentles, Jamaica’s postmaster general and the CEO of the Postal Corporation of Jamaica Ltd. JM: Please give us some facts and figures about Jamaica and its postal service.
MG: The country has a population of 2.7m in an area of just over 4.400 square miles. Interestingly, Jamaica has one of the highest penetration rates for cellular phones anywhere in the world. But this does not detract from the continued importance of the post, particularly for rural communities.
In 2008 we handled 78m items of mail, and 109,000 parcels, but volumes in 2009 will turn out lower. We have 300 post offices and 294 agencies. There are 2,400 employees.
Mail is delivered to residences and offices in major towns, and to approximately 37,000 private letter boxes. There are very few problems in making deliveries even in rural areas, as postal staff have intimate knowledge not only of their communities but also all the local residents.
As a government department we are not required to make a profit. However, the government is now moving to run the post office in full cost recovery mode – that is to take us off the budget.
JM: Tell us about your major customers.
MG: Our major customers are the utility companies, the commercial banks, insurance and trust companies, and the investment houses.
Most of our customers express satisfaction with our quality of service. My major concern is that they still do not have a full appreciation of our full range of service options.
JM: What is your relationship to government? What are the implications of your legal status as a postal corporation? Is there a separate regulator?
MG: The Postal Department is entirely owned by the Government of Jamaica. Any private sector involvement is restricted to a number of joint ventures with private sector companies for some commercial services. (Examples include bill payment services with Paymaster (Jamaica) Ltd, remittances with MoneyGram, and phone card sales with a company called Cool Cards Ltd.)
We report directly to a Government Minister through a Permanent Secretary. In 1995 the Postal Department of Jamaica was set up as a limited liability company to take over the previous civil service department.
The Postal Corporation of Jamaica became operational in 2000. However, it only has six employees because the requisite legislation to take over the Postal Department has not yet been enacted. We still operate under the outdated Post Office Act of 1941. In consequence of this we have limited commercial freedom, and there is currently no postal regulator, although such a role is envisaged.
JM: Does this explain why you have two job titles?
MG: Yes, I am PMG of the Postal Department and CEO of the Corporation.
JM: When do you expect the legislative situation to be sorted out?
MG: Our parent ministry has placed our legislation on its priority list for completion. As it relates to a timeframe, this is still not clear.
JM: Are any of your markets open to competition? And how is e-substitution impacting on the Post’s business activities?
MG: All sectors of the postal market are open to competition in Jamaica, even though this is contrary to the existing legislation. Our main competitors are a vast number of courier companies and other informal players who seem to emerge on a weekly basis.
We have seen some evidence of e-substitution in our markets, but not extensively. Home shopping via the internet has been growing steadily in Jamaica and this has helped our postal business. However, this segment of the market is dominated by private couriers.
JM: Tell us something about the services you offer in your retail outlets. I assume significant numbers of Jamaicans work overseas and therefore the receipt of remittances is quite important to the local economy. What is the Post’s role in all this?
MG: Most of our retail outlets offer not only core products but a number of commercial services as well. Examples include newspaper sales, the opportunity to purchase phone cards, and facilities for bill payments.
We have ambitious counter automation plans which will allow us to extend our range of services in our retail network.
You are right in assuming that significant numbers of Jamaicans reside overseas. In fact, it is estimated that an equal number of Jamaicans live outside Jamaica as live in the home country, namely 2.7m. Remittances are therefore extremely important to the local economy, outstripping more traditional areas of economic activity including tourism and bauxite/alumina.
In order to capture a share of this significant and lucrative market, Jamaica Post has partnered with MoneyGram to offer remittance services throughout the island. In addition, although we are not currently linked to the Universal Postal Union’s IPS remittance system, we expect this to happen shortly.
JM: Talking of the UPU, what are your relationships with this organisation and the regional grouping? Do you have any special one to one relationships with sister posts in the Caribbean region?
MG: We are members of both the UPU and the Caribbean Postal Union (CPU). We have strong, healthy relationships with both organisations and receive technical and financial support from them.
We have benefited in the past from staff training, as well as consultancy, undertaken to enhance our quality of service. For example, the Quality of Service Fund project and the Integrated Postal Reform and Development Plan. Most recently work has been undertaken to look at mail transportation throughout the Caribbean.
Jamaica has a great relationship with all of the members of the CPU, but shares a special one with Barbados and with Trinidad and Tobago. We have collaborated with both on a number of occasions, notably training alongside their experts in such areas as international marketing, accounting and courier services.
JM: What about your use of technology? In operational areas I presume it can be difficult to cost justify. What about technology supporting improved customer service?
MG: In terms of our operational infrastructure there are no plans to automate. Not only do our current volumes fail to warrant automation, but as you rightly indicate there is an overabundance of labour to execute these functions.
We have incorporated technology to offer track and trace for certain classes of mail, for example the Express Mail Service (EMS) and Registered Mail.
Where we are making a massive thrust is in the automation of our retail counters to improve our reporting functions and, most importantly, improve service to our customers. This is also critical to our plans to offer e-government and a full spectrum of financial services to drive revenue growth.
JM: Turning to you as an individual, Michael, you have an interesting mix of experience from previous non-postal roles. What particular skills do you believe you bring to the PMG/CEO roles at Jamaica Post?
MG: I believe I have excellent organisational and interpersonal skills. I also believe I am strong on team working. You also need good written and verbal capabilities in a high profile role such as this. And from my time as Deputy PMG I bring a broad knowledge of wider postal operations.
JM: Finally, what do you enjoy most about your job, what causes you the most concern, and how optimistic are you about the future?
MG: I particularly enjoy the daily interaction with both my staff and customers; and I relish the opportunity to bring about the organisational changes required. We have already made changes in our operations structure as we seek to streamline our parcels and letters business to achieve greater efficiency. More widespread changes are now being contemplated as the full impact of the global recession is forcing the downsizing of the entire public sector in Jamaica.
If you ask me what concerns me most, then I would say our archaic legal position, and the slow rate of growth in revenue. That said, once the necessary organisational restructuring has been implemented, and the enactment of the required legislation is effected, postal services in Jamaica will have a very bright future, despite the numerous challenges that are abound.
This article is featured in the March 2010 issue of the Mail & Express Review. If you do not receive the industry-leading magazine and don’t want to miss out, subscribe by clicking here.