LAFAYETTE -- There's a man in town with the power to make 18,828 residents and 1,293 Post Office box owners cheer, six days a week. Or not.
He's Lafayette's new Postmaster, Kulwant Singh, a 29-year United States Postal Service veteran who stepped into his new role during an installation ceremony on July 17. Assuming the same job Benjamin Shreve took in 1857 as the city's first permanent postmaster, the 61-year-old Singh started his career as a Santa Rosa mail carrier in 1984.
The former high school science teacher and father of two adult daughters arrived from his homeland in India intending to continue in the same academic profession. Sadly, he found the casual, sometimes disrespectful interactions between teachers and students in America disillusioning and dishonoring. Hearing of the enormous volume of work available in mail delivery, he followed a relative's suggestion and sought a secure job with the USPS.
Delivering the mail in Santa Rosa, then Alameda and Richmond, where he became a supervisor of customer service and finance manager, Singh rose through the ranks. His final postal post before Lafayette was in Berkeley, where he attracted the attention of supervisors like Jack Boster, a manager of postal operations.
Singh "does excellent follow up: you give him a task and he completes it," Boster said. "He's good with the employees and communicates their duties clearly. His work in Berkeley, which is almost twice the station size of Lafayette, was excellent."
Singh, who succeeds Tom Stubo at the Lafayette post office, says he jumped at the chance to advance and to prove he can provide consistent service while reducing overtime.
"Overtime makes a big difference to the company," he says. " My goal is to undercut the district standard of a five-minute "wait in line" time and make it 2 1/2 here."
Singh believes the postal service "isn't going away" and will survive by "changing daily" to compete. A new postmaster can make an enormous difference, he claims.
"If customers have to stay too long in line, they're frustrated and I hear about it. If the mail is late to a resident, they're frustrated and I hear about it," he says. "It's my job to look at the workload and keep communication gaps from opening."
Singh recalls his first day as a manager years ago, when he arrived at his post to find that a cascading series of events had left too many vacant routes. It was the beginning of a month, when he knew the delivery of welfare checks and food stamps bumped needy residents' mail from "daily" to "essential."
"I walked around and put all the employees together," he remembers. " We didn't have resources, but we had mail and I told them no mail could be left behind. Everybody stepped up, did extra work. The communication made all the difference."
Singh says the dropoff in the volume of letters and bills in the mail is the biggest difference from when he began. Today, the number of packages processed each day is transforming a mail carrier's responsibilities and the service itself.
"We're introducing express priority on July 28, where tracking and service is guaranteed," he says. "We're not selling the product; we're providing a service. We're improving technology so the whole delivery is transparent to the customer."
Boster agrees, saying the Post Office is "trying to survive" by cutting costs and selling underutilized properties. Many people still believe the Postal Service is a tax-supported entity: the truth is that the service became self-dependent after passage of the Postal Reorganization Act in 1970. Both men shook their heads in wonder at the lingering confusion, and emphasize the Postal Service must be nimble and utilize the Internet to maintain profitability.
"Saturday service is on the table, and there's trouble in the future," Boster admits. "But I think we'll survive. We're a national institution, and although we won't stomp out Fed Ex or UPS, we're giving them a run for their money. It's a big enough world for all of us."
Singh, though, is focusing on his smaller, 48-employee world.
"This is a place where my days are so busy, I don't know what time it is -- and then the day is over," he says. "I am the ambassador for the P.O. I'm here to be courteous to customers. I'm here to provide a service."