Was it a quiet percolation here in Pyne's office? Some alchemical reaction in the corporate conference room? Whichever, the answer, I figure, will come clear only from deeper investigation.

Long content to be a spiffier and speedier version of the U.S. Postal Service, UPS has remade itself into one of the world's most sophisticated purveyors of almost any service that involves moving items from one place to another. The company's goal is to manage as many transport-related activities as possible - distribution, supply-chain management, spare-parts stocking, to name a few - for companies that would rather focus on other challenges, like designing and making new products.

Need a new warehouse? UPS will build and run it for you. Can't master the intricacies of European Customs? Don't worry, UPS knows the first names of most of the agents there. Unsure of the best way to connect your Web-based order entry to your assembly line in Mexico? Fed up with sorting through piles of returned merchandise? Want to speed the flow of cash from overseas sales into the corporate coffers? In all cases, UPS says it's ready to help.

Take Nike. After years running its own stores and filling orders from thousands of retailers around the world, the company hired UPS Logistics Group to manage most of its Web-based business. UPS employees now do everything from answering phone calls from Nike customers to stocking all the basketballs and stopwatches and golf shoes and hockey pucks sold via Nike.com.

Or take Raytheon. The defense contractor pays UPS to store and track the more than 5,000 different parts that go into the Phalanx Gatling guns found on most Navy warships. Until recently, the parts had lingered on racks in 10 warehouses spread around the country, and laying hold on a particular one could be an arduous affair. Now they are ready for next-day delivery, almost anywhere in the world.