Former UPS CEO Dave Abney with Oz Nelson during an Atlanta Rotary program in June 2019. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By Maria Saporta

It’s hard to overstate the impact Kent C. “Oz” Nelson had on Atlanta.

Nelson, who served as CEO of UPS from 1990 to 1996., died on April 6 at the age of 85.

His contributions to the Atlanta community extended far beyond his service to UPS, a company he joined in 1959.

Before and after he retired, Nelson served as a tireless leader in the community. He helped launch the CDC Foundation, a private entity set up to support the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He served on the board of the Carter Center, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and as a national director for United Way of America.

Nelson also was committed to education reform, especially in Kentucky, the largest global air hub for UPS, where he actually served as the company’s first employee in 1963.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to interview Nelson multiple times.

The first time was shortly after the company announced it was moving its corporate headquarters from Greenwich, Conn. to Atlanta – a move that took place in 1991.

Nelson told me that moving to Atlanta was an amazing opportunity for UPS to give back to the community. In Greenwich, one of the richest cities in America, Nelson said there were limited opportunities to really make a difference in the lives of people in need.

To him, the move to Atlanta was an opportunity to become fully engaged in a community with multiple challenges that a corporate leader could help move the needle.

Oz Nelson in his office in 1993 while he was CEO of UPS. (Special: UPS.)

One of the most significant moves Nelson made was leading the effort to build the company’s headquarters in Sandy Springs.

The headquarters is an environmental jewel – an example of how a significant building can be built without destroying the natural setting.

Larry Gellerstedt III, then heading up the project Beers Construction, described the project, designed by architect Tom Ventulett, as one of the most complex because there were huge fines if any trees were damaged outside a 20-foot perimeter of the building. Gellerstedt described it as being as difficult to build the headquarters in the middle of an urban block rather than a suburban piece of land.

Many corporations can learn from UPS’ leadership. Instead of clear-cutting a piece of land, UPS demonstrated how one can sensitively preserve a forest – ensuring a wonderful place for employees to work while enjoying nature.

Another memory I had of Nelson was his experience with United Way. Before moving to Atlanta, UPS had a policy against workplace giving campaigns – not wanting to pressure employees to give to the umbrella charity.

But under Nelson’s leadership, UPS became the top donor to the United Way of Greater Atlanta and one of the top donors to United Way nationally. He viewed it as part of the company’s responsibility to give its employees an opportunity to contribute to the community.

“Oz was a giant of a leader,” said Sam Williams, retired president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “He brought UPS to Atlanta, and that was one of the first Fortune 500 companies to relocate to Atlanta. And he broke the mold in the way UPS built its headquarters and protected the trees.”

Many tributes poured in Monday when his passing was announced by UPS.

“Oz Nelson’s 20 years of dedicated service helped make the Carter Center the strong organization it is today,” said Jason Carter, who succeeded Nelson as board chair. “He was a great friend to me personally and to all of us at the Center. And he was a great friend to the people we serve.”

Oz Nelson meeting with students while he was CEO of UPS. (Special: UPS.)

Kevin Green, president of the Midtown Alliance, remembered meeting Nelson at a party back in the early 2000s.

“We had never met, but after one short round of small talk, we had a delightful conversation that went on for a long while, covered a lot of ground and with plenty of belly laughs,” Green wrote in an email.

“I kept thinking, “Isn’t there someone important you should be talking to?” But Oz made me feel important and made conversation effortless,” Green continued. “He listened actively. He was humble, friendly and personable. Not exactly what I was expecting at the time from such a giant. That evening still sticks vividly in my mind, and it was very affirming. Some people have that quality. Oz Nelson sure did.”

Carol Tomé, the current CEO of UPS, shared the following statement, asking people to join the company in extending condolences to Nelson’s family and all who had experienced his “exemplary” leadership.

Tomé’s message was as follows:

Today we mourn the loss of Oz Nelson, our CEO from 1990 to 1996, and a truly visionary leader. Oz helped transform our company into a global logistics powerhouse, aggressively expanding service offerings and connecting customers around the world. 

Starting in 1959 as a sales and service representative, Oz had spent more than three decades with the company when he took over as CEO, and he understood just how quickly customer needs were changing.

Oz championed innovative technologies, like our real-time package tracking systems and the handheld scanning devices our drivers use today. He also spearheaded our entry into the world of logistics, permanently expanding our expertise beyond package delivery and paving the way for our current customer-first strategy.  

We also remember Oz for leading with his heart. He was deeply committed to people – UPSers and customers around the globe – and the communities where we live and serve, driving the company’s philanthropic and volunteer efforts to new heights.

Oz served in leadership roles for numerous nonprofits, including the CDC, the Carter Center, United Way of America, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and he made significant contributions to education reform in Kentucky. 

We owe Oz a debt of gratitude for his exemplary leadership, and we extend our deepest sympathies to his family and loved ones during this difficult time. Our thoughts are with them as we remember the enduring legacy he leaves behind.

An official portrait of Oz Nelson. (Special: UPS.)

The company also shared the following biographical info about Nelson, who began his career at UPS in 1959, two days after he graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He was hired as a sales and service representative and spent most of his career focusing on the customer and the market. In fact, he helped UPS reach a significant new market, leading the team that established our first operation outside North America in West Germany in 1976.

A year after becoming chairman and CEO in January 1990, Nelson called for a bold vision at the 1991 Leadership Conference – one that would guarantee a “future filled with the right mix of new service features, new services, and the additional revenues and opportunities needed to keep UPS a dynamic, growing organization.”

He also introduced a new corporate mission and strategy outlining four points of focus that still drive UPS today: customers, employees, share holders and communities.

During Nelson’s tenure, UPS began “moving at the speed of business,” introducing service offerings that prioritized speed, like UPS Next Day Early A.M., Saturday delivery and even same-day delivery through the acquisition of SonicAir. A new portfolio of pan-European services, including next-day delivery for domestic and trans-border shipments and guaranteed morning deliveries, also launched.

But Nelson knew that customers needed more, so he set the course for developing sophisticated technology that delivered bundles of information about shipments to UPS and to customers. By introducing the DIAD, with its handheld scanner, GroundTrac and, customers could “see” their packages moving through UPS’s system for the first time. And UPS could “talk” with drivers on road about traffic and last-minute pickups.

Nelson also understood that to really grow the business, UPS needed to do more than move packages – it needed to provide customers with solutions that improved their business along all points of the supply chain. He helped begin the shift of UPS’s image from carrier to trusted logistics partner, with a host of innovative, tech-savvy, integrated solutions.

In 1991, Nelson relocated the corporate headquarters from Greenwich, Conn., to Atlanta, where the company established deep roots.

Nelson also led UPS efforts in another key area – community service. He helped UPS realize that the community is made up of the customers it serves, and he solidified the company’s reputation as a responsible corporate citizen committed to giving back through dollars and deep community involvement.

Nelson served in leadership roles for numerous nonprofits, including chair of the CDC Foundation, the Carter Center and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and national director for United Way of America.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news...

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1 Comment

  1. Oz was a great friend, mentor and outstanding supporter and Board Chair for me at the CDC Foundation during our formative years. Having recently retired as CEO of UPS, Oz was very busy ‘giving back’ through service on multiple non-profit and for-profit boards including ours. Yet he was never more than a phone call away with impeccable advice as he grew me into my leadership role as Founding President and CEO of the CDC Foundation. I will sorely miss him.

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