Taiwan's century-old postal service reinventing itself

By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter
"When I put on the green uniform, I can feel the trust that people have in me," said Du Wan-yi, a 63-year-old postman who works in New Taipei City.
Having been delivering mail for the past 46 years, Du said he has seen a lot of changes in recent years: less appreciation for hand-written letters and more diversification of the services post offices provide.
But he said: "The care is still there."
Throughout his career, Du has been voluntarily visiting senior citizens who live alone. He's gotten to know them while delivering mail.
"But times have changed, and we have to change, too," said Du.
Indeed, Taiwan's 119-year-old postal service Chunghwa Post has undergone significant changes in recent years. From simply delivering mail when it was first founded in China in 1896, and to offering banking and insurance services starting in the 1930s, its services have now expanded to selling micro-insurance to blue collar workers, offering free delivery of fruits for farmers, and much more.
And unlike postal services operating in the red in other countries, due to increased use of e-mail and a decline in traditional mail, Chunghwa Post has been making a profit in recent years.
Many of the changes were brought about by its chairman Philip Ong, who sees his background in foreign affairs as an advantage in pushing for new business models.
Ong, the Taiwan government's former representative to India, said his experience working in overseas cities such as New York and Geneva, has made him more open to new ideas and quicker to adapt to changes.
Change was needed in face of the biggest challenge facing the postal service -- the dwindling mail business. The volume of mail the post office collects has decreased by 2-3 percent annually in recent years because more people have turned to e-mail, messaging apps or free Internet calling services.
As a result, the overall mail business of Chunghwa Post has been sustaining an annual loss of NT$3 billion (US$97 million), which made manpower reallocation for the 9,000 postal workers and a redesign of postal routes necessary, Ong said.
Only the small parcel business is doing well due to the emergence of e-commerce, Ong said, adding that Chunghwa Post will allocate more resources to that section.
However, compared with other struggling postal services around the world, including the United States Postal Service (USPS), Chunghwa Post is "doing relatively OK," Ong said.
The USPS has been losing gigantic amounts of money despite cost-cutting efforts such as layoffs and closures of thousands of post offices. According to its financial statement, in the first quarter of 2015, the USPS recorded a net loss of nearly US$1.5 billion.
In the case of Chunghwa Post, it is making up for its core business being in the red by more aggressively investing overseas with its Postal Capital fund, which currently stands at some NT$6.4 trillion.
Through that strategy, the postal service was able to earn NT$12.1 billion in overall profit last year, which Ong said has allowed Chunghwa Post to continue providing its mailing service even though it's a money-losing business.
"The spirit of the postal service is doing good work for the people," Ong said.
Being able to make money through its investment fund has also allowed Chunghwa Post to utilize its extensive postal network across the country to undertake greater social responsibilities.
In 2014, Ong launched micro-insurance operations that target low-income groups. The service allows people in blue collar and high risk fields, such as fishermen and farmers, to purchase accidental insurance in case anything happened to them.
This service is aimed at providing minority groups protection plans at more affordable costs, he said.
Chunghwa Post also works with local farmers to provide free shipping services for their farm products as long as the shipments are within Taiwan proper. In the past, partly due to the high shipping costs, farmers sold only to traders or middlemen, earning less profit. Through this new service, they can sell directly to consumers without additional costs.
For example, the postal service offers free delivery services for farmers in the southern city of Kaohsiung to deliver lychee fruit to anywhere in mainland Taiwan with standard-size packages that weigh three kilograms.
The synergy between the postal service and independent farmers is beneficial not only to the farmers but also to Chunghwa Post, Ong said, as the "good story" helps to give the post office a positive image.
This willingness to adapt has also included keeping up with the latest technology trends and introducing them to the work environment.
Since taking office in November 2013, Ong has taken advantage of the social messaging app LINE to reduce paperwork and enhance internal communication.
In addition, he launched free LINE stickers featuring mailman cartoons in April 2014, aimed at giving the post office a fresh, new look. The LINE initiative has proven a big hit, which has so far enjoyed some 6 million followers.
Ong also gave the postal service a makeover. He refurbished the brand name of the company, literally, by replacing aging signboards across the 1,324 post offices across the country.
The installation of nearly 20,000 LED lights and some 40 public toilets were also among his efforts at modernizing the post offices, Ong said.
Staff members were given new uniforms, with redesigned waiting areas in some post offices as part of Ong's strategy to draw the public to them.
"We are copying the idea of uniforms from (Taiwan's national carrier) China Airlines, the idea of counter services from the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, and the idea of toilets from 7-ELEVEN (convenience stores)," Ong said, citing the generally high approval rate of those institutions. Customers were appreciative of the efforts. "It's really nice of them to put some new chairs right in front of the counters," said 62-year-old Huang Yi-cheng. "I used to have to stand there for a long time and watch them do their thing. Now we could talk naturally." "I think the toilet idea is very neat," said 76-year-old Chiu Liang-mei. "I felt more relaxed bringing my grandchildren to the post office."
Chiu said postal services have become a part of people's lives, which is why she has been buying stamp collections for her three grandchildren each year as keepsakes.
To continue boosting the services of the postal service, Ong is also planning to systematically build up long-term care services for the elderly people through the help of postmen, so more of them can replicate what Du has been doing over the years. Currently, postal workers pay over 50,000 visits each year to some 9,100 senior citizens who live alone, according to Chunghwa Post. They do this on a voluntary basis on their delivery routes during work hours.
Ong said he is planning to institutionalize that service. He traveled to Japan soon after he took office to learn how Japanese post offices are carrying out similar services. In Japan, trial services are being offered in 103 post offices in remote areas, while its staffs are not given a bonus for doing so. Ong said he planned to expand services already in place in Taiwan, but on a voluntary basis. The aim of senior care system is to create a stronger bond between people and the postal service, Ong said, describing the connection as an intangible asset for the company.
It is believed that as Taiwan's population ages and an increasing number of elderly people live alone, the thousands of postal workers fanning out across all corners of the island to deliver mail and packages are the perfect people to help check on the welfare of the senior citizens.
To Ong, besides following the company's motto "Whether rain, sleet, or snow, Chunghwa Post knows the drill," the post office should transform itself with time and play a much more active role in society. Regardless of its changes, however, people like Du said the spirit of the postal service is always the same -- serving people with a caring heart. "I feel content when people smile while getting mail from my hands," Du said. "I take great pride in my job."