“DHL, Three Letters That Shrank the World”

I’ve just finished reading “DHL, Three Letters That Shrank the World”. People like stories, and these 800-plus pages tell a good one. It’s not usual to find a book that gives so much fine-grained detail but reads as a page-turning narrative.

Before DHL there was no international courier business and so this company became an enabler of globalisation. The birth, growth and flowering of a company that needs offices in many countries would seem to be a complex story to tell, yet its author, Jane Chung, pulls it off well.

When you invent a new industry, you find yourself in uncharted territory and existing organisations may see a threat and become adversaries. With DHL’s inception of the international courier business, those raising barriers were post offices with government monopolies, customs authorities and air cargo operators. DHL fought lone legal battles at first, convincing governments that it was not conveying letters, that it would be unable to make express deliveries if every document pack had to go through a customs hall, and that documents should not be charged at air-cargo rates.

These struggles occurred time and again as stations in new countries were opened up. Larry Hillblom, the H in DHL, used his legal qualifications fighting opposition in courts across the world. His appearances in the book make a thread; he is the superhero who surfaces regularly in the story, bringing new ideas and fixes for difficulties that often appear to be about to take the company down – and then somehow don’t, though disaster was perilously close at times.

The founders and early staff often achieved what seemed impossible, adopting a philosophy of ‘do it first and apologise later’ and improvise, improvise, improvise. The social engineering and unconventional way they built the company makes for enlightening reading.

One thing that’s clear – in the early days they were mostly amateurs, but the glue of social connections, flexibility, willingness to take risks and a belief in the new company supported them as they powered through the learning process.

More and more international companies needed this type of service, and at the time, no one else offered it. So DHL’s customers joined cause with the company to pressure governments on regulatory issues; governments became convinced that their economies needed express document carriage; and DHL built a complex network of offices and relationships across the world. Along with it, a new type of business that truly “shrank the world” was born.

Full disclosure: I worked for a DHL subsidiary for two years from 1979, and Jane Chung was my boss until she moved to new responsibilities and I took over her position.

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A personal blog about a few of my interests … other than Visual Thinking