The messenger service that two young men began in an office in Pioneer Square is now the world's largest shipping carrier.

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Ahundred dollars can sure go a long way in a hundred years.

In 1907, two young men from Seattle, Jim Casey and his business partner, Claude Ryan, used a $100 loan to start the American Messenger Co. in a basement office in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

It wasn’t much of a business back then — a few young men delivering messages and packages on foot or by streetcar. They could only afford one bicycle that first year.

Their fledgling business, however, flourished in Seattle, which was enjoying a boom, thanks to the Alaska Gold Rush. And a century later their company, now known as UPS, is the world’s largest shipping carrier — a $47 billion business with 427,000 employees and operations in 200 countries.

UPS, known for its brown trucks and uniforms, not only moves a lot of packages and documents — 15.6 million a day — it has moved a lot itself. It spent its first 15 years based in Seattle before relocating to Los Angeles, New York and then Atlanta, its current headquarters.

But its ties to the Seattle area still run deep and about 300 UPS executives, including CEO Mike Eskew, will gather here Aug. 28 to celebrate the company’s centennial and pay homage to its Northwest roots.

From the basement up

Casey was 18 and Ryan 19 when they started the company in a hotel basement at Second Avenue and Main Street. UPS built a waterfall garden park at the site in 1967 to commemorate its birthplace.

In the company’s early years, telephones were uncommon, so Casey and Ryan made message delivery their focus. They put up posters at hotels, restaurants and other locations with public telephones to attract business. The American Messenger Co. showed an early tendency to seek out new markets by delivering most anything that could be carried by hand or on a bicycle — dinner to people’s houses and even miniature kegs of beer.

The company distinguished itself from most competitors by giving honest estimates about when they could make deliveries, a UPS historian said.

“They didn’t say ‘right away,’ ” said Jill Swiecichowski. “If it was going to take a couple of minutes, they would let you know.”

As telephones became more popular and the messenger business began to dwindle, Casey and Ryan’s company started deliveries for small retailers, such as grocery stores, drugstores and hat shops.

Through a couple of mergers with other small delivery services, the young entrepeneurs acquired motorcycles and delivery vehicles.

By 1918, the company had Seattle’s major department stores as customers, including The Bon Marché (now Macy’s). Since most people didn’t own cars, shoppers had no easy way to take big purchases home. That’s where UPS stepped in.

The company was doing so well that by 1919 it expanded to Oakland, Calif., where it became the United Parcel Service. It rebranded itself as UPS in 2003.

UPS continued opening offices up and down the West Coast, often by purchasing already established businesses.

The shipping carrier was mostly unfazed by the Depression, moving its headquarters to New York and continuing to expand by capturing the business of big department stores.

“We were able to keep expanding during a time when there were companies going under left and right,” Swiecichowski said.

Fond memories

Jim Casey, who died in 1983 at 95, might not have been a household name, but the founder of UPS enjoys near-legendary status among employees of the company today.

They talk about his interest in their jobs, regardless of their position.

Doug Baker, a UPS employee in Seattle since 1976, said he’d heard that on one rainy night at an Olympia hotel, Casey walked out of a meeting with attorneys without saying a word. He came back soaked, after walking several miles to get medicine for one of the attorneys who had been coughing.

Baker started as an unloader and driver during the holidays. He was hired permanently the following year as a driver, then after five years became a manager. Baker became a longtime friend of Jim Casey’s sister Marguerite, after participating in a service committee that had entry-level employees suggest ways to improve.

“He was absolutely the most genuine, interested, down-to-earth person you would ever want to meet,” Baker said.

When Baker gave Casey a tour of a UPS call center in Seattle, Casey told him that when he started in Seattle only two people were allowed to answer the phone: he and his brother. Casey asked: How could the company ensure the right information was being given out?

“Seventy-five years later, he was still concerned,” Baker said.

CEO Eskew met Casey when he was in his mid-20s, working as an industrial engineering manager.

“He stood up and walked around his desk and shook my hand,” said Eskew. The two chatted about the state of the business.

“He was always curious,” Eskew said.

When he visited UPS facilities, Casey would always talk to the last person hired, whether it was a mechanic or a custodian.

“He had that talent of getting somebody to talk about themselves; he’d sit back and listen. By doing that, he learned,” said nephew Paul Casey.

His uncle’s work ethic left a strong impression on his young nephew.

“He was a hard-working man,” Paul Casey said. “Even on vacation, he’d take out a couple of hours to sit and work.”

But his uncle never talked much about work, Casey said. He would chat about how he’d once climbed Mount Rainier and invite him to boxing and wrestling matches and Paul remembered seeing his uncle talk to loaders and drivers that he knew.

“He had a great ability of remembering names and faces,” Casey said.

Another Casey legacy

Casey not only left a mark on those who worked for his company. His charity work is being continued today by a foundation set up decades ago.

Seattle-based Casey Family Programs was established 1966 by Jim Casey and his siblings. The organization provides long-term foster care and promote advances in child-welfare practice and policy.

Though Jim Casey was a lifelong bachelor, children were near to his heart.

Casey’s father died when he was young, and he left school at age 11, as did his brothers, to help the family survive financially.

“They knew what it was like to lose a parent … to go out and sell newspapers for a dime a day,” Swiecichowski said. “They didn’t want somebody else to be in that situation.”

The future

Over its hundred years in business, UPS has undergone a number of transformations. Eskew, the CEO, said the pace of change is now faster than any other time in the company’s history.

Part of UPS’s strategy has been to expand beyond small-package delivery to shipping heavy freight and providing other services for companies.

In 2001, the company acquired the Mail Boxes Etc. chain; most of the stores were later renamed The UPS Store.

Last month, UPS reported a 4.1 percent rise in second-quarter earnings on a modest increase in sales.

To become more efficient, UPS uses technology to map out the shortest routes for its trucks. The technology and greater use of alternative-fuel trucks have saved on costs, according to Robert Hall, director of ground fleet engineering at UPS.

Eskew anticipates that UPS will become “much more global” in the future.

The same appears to be true for Memphis-based rival FedEx, founded in 1971. FedEx, which did $35.2 billion of business last year, now serves more than 220 countries.

Even with UPS’s expansion to foreign countries, one thing Eskew hopes will remain a constant is customer service.

“We have to treat each customer and each package like it’s the only one we have,” he said.

UPS relies on a good relationship with its clients and tries to keep its drivers on the same route to build familiarity with customers.

Mario Carter, who’s been a Seattle-area UPS driver since 1979, says he knows many people on his routes.

“I know where they want all their packages,” Carter said. “We’re always interacting … saying a couple of words because you don’t have that much time. Day after day, you get to know them well.”

While the routes may be the same for Carter, the daily routine has changed since he started working with UPS. Handheld computers have replaced the clipboard, pen and paper. Drivers stay in communication with UPS offices through text messaging.

Carter, along with other UPS employees, will get a commemorative piece of metal from the first UPS plane (a Boeing 727 from the early 1980s) to celebrate the centennial.

In his 35 years as CEO, Eskew might have had one of his busiest this year. He’s been on a worldwide tour that started in New Orleans in January, stopping at many of the cities UPS serves.

Like Casey, he is looking to expand UPS and keep up with the changing times.

“You don’t get to be 100 by staying the same,” Eskew said.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Bibeka Shrestha: 206-515-5632 or bshrestha@seattletimes.com