Ex-Wall Street Executive Steers Ukraine Post Office Through War
(Bloomberg) -- On Wall Street, Igor Smelyansky used to specialize in stitching together merged companies.
These days, as director general of Ukraine’s postal service, Ukrposhta, he drives from city to city, inspecting bomb damage and trying to keep communication and commerce flowing in a nation torn by war.
“In the western part it’s almost like normal times, aside from sirens and the occasional bombing,” Smelyansky said in a phone interview last month. “On the eastern part, obviously, it’s more complicated.”
Under Smelyansky’s leadership the state-owned Ukrposhta has displayed a puckish humor, born of terrible circumstance. It issued a stamp featuring a Ukrainian guardsman on a beach making a middle-finger gesture toward a looming Russian warship, the Moskva. The stamp sold briskly.
After the ship sank, Ukrposhta issued a new stamp bearing the words, “Moskva DONE.” Some of the proceeds from the stamp sales will go to support Ukraine’s military, Smelyansky said.
A native of Odesa, Smelyansky, 46, came to the U.S. for college, getting an MBA from Georgetown University and a law degree from George Washington University, both in Washington. He took his current job in 2016 after being approached by a recruiter rounding up candidates.
“I thought if I can change this company and show it to millions of people, they would realize that nothing is impossible in Ukraine and we can build the best country possible,” Smelyansky said.
By then he had had extensive experience managing companies after mergers. At KPMG LLP in 2015 and 2016, he planned and executed post-merger integration for international specialty insurance firms, and helped manage the post-deal acquisition process across six countries for a professional services firms.
Earlier, as a principal at Boston Consulting Group Inc., Smelyansky handled projects including post-merger integration for a 1,400-branch bank in parts of the former Soviet Union.
Ukrposhta, with 75,000 employees and 11,500 post offices, has continued operating since the invasion in February. Some employees have fled, but about three-fourths are still on the job, Smelyansky said. Smelyansky’s wife and two school-age sons are in the U.S.
Mail flows now with improvisation: to move from the west to the capital, Kyiv, it goes at night by train because highways are closed after dark and slowed by roadblocks during the day.
Ukrposhta delivers cash pensions to more than 3 million Ukrainians, and has made sure that flow that has continued, even in territories controlled by Russians -- “temporarily occupied,” as Smelyansky says.
Ukrposhta contacts businesses such as bakeries and has them pay cash to pensioners, while it electronically reimburses the businesses, Smelyansky said.
His days begin at 6 a.m. with a security assessment: “which roads are safe to take, which roads are not safe.”
Smelyansky was in the northeastern city of Kharkiv recently visiting Ukrposhta workers when it was bombed.
“We drank some tea. We talked,” Smelyansky said. “It’s important for people to see me and it’s important for them to see that I am with them.”
At times, Smelyansky’s duties are somber. Ukrposhta lost two young workers in the line of duty. The employees, delivering pensions from a mobile branch, were killed in the war’s initial weeks.
A tank showed up “out of the blue” and “they just shot at the vehicle and killed them,” Smelyansky said. “We’re now even more careful.”
In another instance, Smelyansky took to social media to post an image of a letter written by a 9-year-old girl to her mother who had been killed.
“We are in business of delivering letters. But there are some letters we can’t deliver,” Smelyansky wrote.
The hand-written letter says, in part: “You are the best mom in the world! I will never forget you. I wish you happiness wherever you are and wish you to get to heaven! And we will meet with you there. I will behave myself so I can get to heaven with you.”
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