David Abney, the middle of three children, was born in 1955 in Cleveland, Mississippi. His family moved often, but always within the northern part of the state known as the Mississippi Delta, where the poverty rate is nearly twice the national rate. In the early days, David’s father ran a gas station but later switched to selling insurance. His mother worked periodically in a textile factory.
As an adult, David learned that his father probably suffered from clinical depression. “When I was young, we didn’t have a diagnosis that explained my father’s behavior swings,” he says. “There were times when he could be volatile, and then there could be days where he was silent. We never knew what set him off one way or the other. But he was a complex man who had a strong work ethic and who loved his family.”
David grew up in the segregated South. “In those days in the Delta, we had the privileged few who were the landowners, the doctors, and the lawyers. Then there was the middle class. We called ourselves that, but really only because we had a little more than others. In the African-American part of town, however, there was grinding poverty. I grew up with the civil rights movement going on all around me. I was told as a child that we were separate but equal. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered that what I had been told was not true. At that point, you have to make your own decisions about what is right and wrong—what you believe and what you don’t believe. This was certainly an inflection point that shaped the rest of my life.”
David’s innate optimism got him through the most trying times of his youth. He enjoyed sports and dreamed, as many boys do, of a professional career as a football or baseball player. But in reality, David was small in high school. “I was only 5’8” but my feet were size 13,” he says. “After I graduated, I grew about six inches in 18 months. I guess you would say I was a late bloomer.”
School came easily to David, but he was raised in a community that had low expectations for a brighter future. “Truth is, there wasn’t much opportunity in those little southern towns, and many adults weren’t formally educated. At times, it made for a difficult upbringing. So he worked when and where he could—mowing lawns, selling newspapers, and, while living near Ole Miss, selling soft drinks in the stadium stands. But a professional career was not discussed with his parents. At most, he thought that without financial help he would only be able to manage a few years in community college. To his surprise, he won a scholarship to Delta State University, which paid half his tuition. He made the daily one-hour commute to school from his parents’ house and paid his way through school with a night job as a UPS package loader.
He began college with the idea of becoming a high school history teacher, but a year into working for UPS changed his mind. His manager took an interest in him and one night talked with David about the advantages of working full time for UPS. “I was 19 years old and outside of my mother and grandmother this man was the first person who told me I had real potential. I’m sure he didn’t think he was looking at the future CEO of UPS. He just wanted me to consider a new path forward. That’s when I became what we in the company call brown-blooded, a true UPSer—someone who believes in UPS as a great company to work for permanently.”
During his senior year of college, after changing his major to business, David met Sherry. They married seven months later. Following his graduation in 1976, David and Sherry loaded all their possessions into their Monte Carlo and a U-Haul trailer and moved to the Gulf Coast so that David could accept a UPS driving position. Within three months, UPS made him lead driver and he took over management of the small center. When there wasn’t enough work to keep everyone on the payroll, David laid himself off first. “My wife and I were living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “But I thought it was important to put the needs of the people I managed ahead of my own. It wasn’t part of any grand plan. I think it was just the work ethic I learned from my father. I was simply trying to do my job to the best of my ability. But looking back, I think it got me noticed.”
David’s leadership and acceptance of responsibility propelled him steadily up the corporate ladder. He moved his family eight times to accept new positions, which in most cases took him out of the small southern facilities that were his comfort zone. David has held 20 jobs in his 45 years with UPS; 10 of those years he worked nights. “It was just a series of steps up the ladder,” he says. “UPS would put me in over my head, and I’d figure out a way to get my chin over the line. I had a lot of help from mentors and the good people who worked for me along the way. Today, young kids look at me cross-eyed when I talk about working for one company for my entire career, but it never felt like that. My experiences were varied. For example, we bought an international freight forwarder, and I ran that. In fact, I ran several acquisitions, and then I became president of UPS International. It was always different jobs with varying degrees of difficulty. I was certainly never bored.”
After serving as president of UPS International, David became COO of UPS in 2007, and then CEO in 2014. In 2016, he added chairman to his title. Today, UPS is a global company with $66 billion in annual revenue and more than 454,000 employees. Reflecting on his long career, David believes that success breeds success. “Once I started believing in my abilities and the high standards I set for what I considered to be a job well done, then my promotions came at a steady pace,” he says. “I learned how to live up to my full potential, which freed me to help my workers learn to do the same.”
One thing David has discovered is that his personal values match well with those of UPS. “I got my degree from Delta State,” he says, “but I got my honorary master’s in diversity and inclusion from UPS. This company was the first integrated environment I really experienced. My little town in Mississippi didn’t operate that way, but UPS did. At UPS we work as a team—no matter what a person’s ethnicity, religion, or gender may be. I’m proud of that core value.”
David often addresses graduate students, and his advice to them is to do their best at whatever job is in front of them—no matter who is or isn’t watching. “And by the way,” he adds, “there is always somebody watching.” He will never forget one student who asked him how he could get to David’s job level without all the relocations, late nights, and travel. David replied, “If you’re not willing to do those things that’s up to you. But you have to realize that there are going to be plenty of sharp people in this world who are willing to do those things, and then 20 or 30 years from now you may be looking around and asking, ‘Why didn’t I get my opportunity?’”
David has never forgotten his roots. Annually, he hosts a business symposium at his alma mater to help Delta students see the possibilities for their own careers. “The Mississippi Delta is the poorest part of the poorest state,” says David. “We have sponsored the International Symposium for 14 years, bringing in business leaders from around the globe to address students whose backgrounds are similar to mine in that they don’t include exposure to many opportunities and possibilities. It’s an eye-opening experience for them.”
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, David is quick to point out that he feels his recognition should be shared with his wife, Sherry. “I could not have accomplished all I have without Sherry. She is the CEO of our family. She is the one who held our family together through all our relocations. She is the one who raised our children to be great adults. She is my role model. I know this is an individual award. But in my case, it’s a duet.”
Anxious to become acquainted with the Horatio Alger Scholars, David says, “I’m captivated by these impressive young people who are working so hard to make positive changes in their lives. Their scholarships give them a huge opportunity—one that may well be a first for their families. I believe they have decided that they will not throw away their shot; that they will make the most of it. That fills me with optimism. You know, most people aren’t looking for handouts; most are looking for opportunities. I’m am honored to become a part of an organization that is creating those opportunities to such good effect.”