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If you like Frederick Smith's story, you might also like:
Jeffrey Bezos,
Michael Dell,
Bill Gates,
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and Ted Turner

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Frederick W. Smith
Frederick W. Smith
Profile of Frederick W. Smith Biography of Frederick W. Smith Interview with Frederick W. Smith Frederick W. Smith Photo Gallery

Frederick W. Smith Interview

Founder, Federal Express

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Frederick W. Smith

Where and when did you get the idea for Federal Express?

Frederick Smith: The original idea came in two parts. The first part was when...

I was a student at Yale and wrote a paper about the computerized society that was on the horizon. It was pretty clear then, with IBM installing the big computers around, that the world was going to change. And the paper was about how this was going to change a lot of things, and in particular it was going to change the way things had to be distributed and moved to support those automated devices.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Then I sort of let that lie. I didn't get a particularly good grade on it, as I recall. I don't think it was prescient, or brilliant in any respect. When I graduated from Yale in 1966, I went into the service, like a great percentage of my classmates at that time. The Vietnam War had begun in earnest, and I spent four and a half years in the Marine Corps. That's when I sort of crystallized the idea for FedEx on the supply side, how to solve the problem that had been identified in that paper.

In the military there's a tremendous amount of waste. The supplies were sort of pushed forward, like you push food onto a table. And invariably, all of the supplies were in the wrong place for where they were needed. Observing that and trying to think about ways to have a different type of a distribution system is what crystallized the idea.

The solution was, in my mind, to have an integrated air and ground system, which had never been done. And to operate not on a linear basis, where you try to take things from one point to another, but operate in a systemic manner. Sort of the way a bank clearing house does, you know? They have a bank clearing house in the middle of all the banks and everybody sends someone down there and they swap everything around. Well, that had been done in transportation before: the Indian post office, the French post office. American Airlines had tried a system like that shortly after World War II. But the demand side and supply side had really not met at an appropriate level of maturation.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

By the early '70s when I'd gotten out of the service it was very clear that this new society was coming in earnest. And so, at that point I said, "What the hell, let's try to put it together." And that's how FedEx came to be. And then from that point forward, the requirements for this type of system were so profound and so big, really for the next 25 years to this date we've simply been running just to keep up with the requirements. And that's what led to the hundreds of planes and the thousands of trucks. I wish it was something that I could say I was so smart. It was just like Pogo the Possum said, "If you want to be a great leader, find a big parade and run in front of it." And that's what we've been doing for the last quarter century.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

How would you describe your childhood?

Frederick Smith: My childhood was autonomous, in the main. My father passed away when I was four. I had a lovely mother, but not having a father influence, I learned a lot of things on my own. I think that would be the best characterization of it.

How did you learn those things?

Frederick Smith: Through a lot of hard knocks. Learning when to stand up, when to sit down, when to shut up and when not to. I had a couple of uncles that were very helpful to me, but I was not around them every day. But in the summers and so forth they were very good to me in terms of teaching me a few things about life. Certainly, my coaches were very important to me. My high school football coach was very important to me, in setting me straight on a few things.

What did you learn from your high school football coach?

Frederick Smith: He was a little guy who was a great football player at Georgia Tech, and he just was indefatigable. He just would never, ever say die. He absolutely proved to me that persistence was a very big part of making it in life. I never forgot that lesson.

Do you have siblings?

Frederick Smith: I have a half-brother and had another half-brother who passed away. I had an adopted sister and a half-sister, but I never lived with them.

How did you get along with your brothers and sisters?

Frederick W. Smith Interview Photo
Frederick Smith: Well, my middle brother and I used to try to beat the devil out of one another on a regular basis. Just kid stuff. He was about five or six years older than I was. And then of course, like most siblings, we grew up and got to be very close. I thank goodness for my big brother, who always mediated between the two of us.

Did you think being a younger brother affected you in any way?

Frederick Smith: Perhaps it did, but the age differences were so great that it wasn't to the extent that it might be with brothers who are closer in age.

Were there any important experiences that influenced you or inspired you as a youngster?

Frederick Smith: I don't think that there was any one incident that changed my life. It was simply the observation of a lot of people that I admired. I synthesized a lot of things from my coach, my uncles, my teachers in a certain area. I had a marvelous English teacher who opened my eyes to the fact there'd been a lot of people on this planet before my time who might have a thing or two to say that were of use. So, I got a lot of things from a lot of people. I picked and chose.

What kind of a student were you?

Frederick Smith: I was a good student. I liked to read enormously. I loved history. It was not difficult for me to make good grades.

Were there any books that were important to you when you were a kid?

Frederick Smith: I read a lot of history, and still do, as a matter of fact. I remember reading a very famous book called Death Be Not Proud, that affected me a lot. It's about a young boy who had a brain tumor and how he handled that. I read an awful lot about famous people, the generals and the presidents, and things of that nature.

How did you spend your spare time? Obviously, you were an athlete.

Frederick Smith: I always loved to play sports and that was the biggest avocation I had as a youngster. I suspect that I was unusual in the amount of reading I did. I loved to read when I was young, I love to read today. I still spend a tremendous amount of time doing that.

Are there any other books that come to mind from your childhood?

Frederick Smith: I remember reading a biography of General Lee, of course, which was obligatory for any kid from the South. Perhaps he was working for not a very good cause, but the way the man conducted his affairs and managed his life were exemplary. I think that had a very big effect on me.

How did you get along with your classmates?

Frederick Smith: I was okay in that regard. I had a lot of buddies, and got in my share of scrapes and jams, the same way everybody does. The occasional schoolyard tussle and pulling a prank every once in a while, nothing really serious.

When did you know what you wanted to do with your life?

Frederick Smith: I didn't really decide that until I was in the Marine Corps and decided that I wanted to go into business.

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