Mississippi native and UPS CEO and Chairman of the Board David Abney, shared insights on the rapid pace of technological change over the past two decades at the Rotary Club of Birmingham.
He points out that at the turn of the 21st century, no one would have imagined that people one day would be communicating with just their fingers and thumbs.
“When I was in New Jersey 20 years ago, if human beings were communicating with their fingers, that usually wasn’t a real good thing,” Abney said to laughter during a talk he gave to the Rotary Club of Birmingham on Wednesday.
Indeed, technology is moving faster than a UPS driver during Christmas week, and Abney has had a front-seat view of these changes during his 44-year career with the company. A native of Greenwood, Miss., Abney joined UPS in 1974 at age 19. At the same time, he was becoming the first member of his family to attend college. So he loaded UPS trucks at night, and studied business during the day at Delta State University, located 45 minutes away in Cleveland, Miss.
Today, Abney oversees a company that has more than 454,000 employees and delivers to 220 countries and territories. UPS delivers approximately 20 million packages a day, though that number can nearly double around Christmas, an increase Abney said is due almost entirely to the breakneck growth in e-commerce.
“In the 44 years I’ve been involved in business, the disruption that’s going on now is at a pace like I’ve never seen,” Abney said. “The world is moving at an exponential rate. We can do things today that we couldn’t have dreamed of just 10 years ago. And in another 10 years, it’s going to be a completely different world than what it is now.”
Rather that fear that change, Abney says people should embrace the opportunities that come with it. For example, he said the $2.3 trillion e-commerce market is giving small and mid-sized businesses sales opportunities that previously did not exist. And he pointed out that consumers now have more choices – and therefore more purchasing power – than ever before.
“So when you want to fret about all the disruptions that e-commerce is showing, you also need to think about all the opportunities that come with a market that big,” Abney said. “Despite all the uncertainty, we must continue to embrace change, so we can continue to compete for those 21st-century jobs.”
One of the keys moving forward, Abney said, is to make sure that the United States remains competitive when it comes to international trade, especially in emerging markets. He said it is predicted that within seven years, the emerging market GDP will hit $30 trillion.
“That represents the biggest growth opportunity in the history of capitalism,” Abney said. “It’s very easy to say that we’ve lost jobs to emerging markets, but these markets are going to be driving the growth in future generations. So we need to make sure that we’re able to compete as a country in those areas. We have to look at it as opportunities.”
Abney said UPS is a “big supporter of free and fair trade,” but also believes that current trade agreements such as NAFTA need to be modernized. That agreement was signed nearly 25 years ago, well before e-commerce even existed.
“What we have to watch the most about this disruption is ever thinking we can continue to run our business the way we’ve run it in the past,” Abney said. “The world is moving at such a pace that if you ever do that, you’re going to get left behind very quickly.”