WASHINGTON, March 4, 2014 – Fred Smith served two tours in
Vietnam with the Marine Corps, earning the Silver Star, Bronze Star
and two Purple Heart medals.
Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, speaks about his wartime
experiences and about FedEx at the Pentagon, Feb. 28, 2014. The
event, called “Battlefield to Boardroom,” commemorates the 50th
anniversary of the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo by David Vergun)
During his wartime service, Smith said, he was impressed with the
effectiveness of wartime logistics and Marine Corps leadership
values. He thought he might be able to use some of that experience
to build a successful business in the civilian sector.
spoke about his wartime experiences during a Feb. 28 event at the
Pentagon called "Battlefield to Boardroom." The presentation was
part of the ongoing, nationwide "Commemoration of the 50th
Anniversary of the Vietnam War."
Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, the Army's deputy chief of staff for
logistics, hosted the event and represents the Army as one of the
many partners involved in officially recognizing and commemorating
Smith told the Pentagon Auditorium audience that after
his Vietnam experience, he went on to found the shipping
company Federal Express. Today, he serves as chairman,
president and CEO of that Fortune 100 company.
"Everything that went into FedEx that made the business that
it is today relates to what I learned in the Marine Corps,
and I've always been grateful for that education and for
those I've served with," he said.
In 1966, Smith
became a platoon leader with the 1st Marine Division in Chu
Lai, South Vietnam. He said there was a shortage of
officers, so pretty quickly he became commander of Kilo
Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. His rifle company
participated in the epic battle for Hue City.
that commanding those men was the proudest moment of his
Of his Marines, he remarked, "They were the
finest group of young men you could ever have -- courageous
beyond belief -- and the memory of that is with me every day
of my life."
During his second tour in Vietnam, Smith
was a forward air controller with Marine Observation
Squadron 2 at Marble Mountain.
experiences, he said, gave him a deep appreciation for not
only the leadership qualities of Marines, but also their
"Our close-air support with
Marine Corps A-4s and F-4s was spectacular, unbelievable,
bringing precision and coordination to the battle," he said.
When Smith started Federal Express in 1971, one of the
first innovations he said he brought was integrating
air-ground operations and ensuring everything was well
coordinated, from the pickup and delivery folks to the
pilots. "Lessons learned during Vietnam played over and over
in my mind when we developed the business plan," he said.
Part of that plan development was getting a fitting
motto and a mission statement, he said, recalling the famous
Marine motto, Semper Fidelis, or "always faithful."
While it's not in Latin, the FedEx motto is short enough to
remember, he said, and fits the mission: "I will make every
FedEx experience outstanding."
The Marine colors are
scarlet and gold, Smith noted, and the primary FedEx color
is purple. Thus, the FedEx motto is known as the "Purple
Another lesson Smith said he learned from
the Marines was ensuring that each operating company of
FedEx is managed collaboratively and is capable of operating
independently. He said that was his takeaway lesson from
observing the military services working together and
small-unit leaders being capable of operating independently
when the situation called for it.
The process at
FedEx for selecting leaders is "rigorous," he said, adding
that the company usually promotes from within. "The vast
majority of FedEx leaders today started out as pickup or
delivery people, or washing airplanes," he added.
everyone is leader material, he noted, and they don't
necessarily have to be. If they have good technical skills,
he said, there's a career path for them at FedEx. With a
workforce of some 350,000 people worldwide, not everyone can
be a leader, he said.
As in every organization,
people at FedEx sometimes get into trouble. The company's
process for handling disciplinary problems dates back to
lessons Smith learned from the Marines. Employees can
request "mast" up the chain of command, all the way to the
unit CEO, he said.
There's also a review board and,
he said, and sometimes the board will hand over proceedings
to a peer review board made up of those who work with the
individual. The peer review board has the power to overturn
Smith summed up his business
philosophy: "If you take care of the folks, treat them
right, put good leaders in front of them, communicate with
them, set the example, make sure they understand what's in
this for them, make sure they understand the importance of
what they're doing, they'll provide that service. Keeping
that Purple Promise, and profit will take care of itself."
FedEx recently was named No. 8 on Fortune magazine's
list of the most admired companies, Smith said. "The reason
that happened had nothing to do with me,” he added. “It had
to do with those 350,000 folks."
Sometimes when Smith
is asked to give lectures at business schools, he's asked
about the success of his company and why people like to work
there. He said they're surprised when he tells them that his
greatest learning experiences came from being with the
Of Marines and service members from all of
the services today, he said, "I'm in awe of the quality of
the troops and young officers I've had opportunity to come
in contact with."
But Smith's experiences with his
Marines during the Vietnam War have left an indelible mark
on him, including those who were not as fortunate to return.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about
the names of those on the Vietnam Wall," he said, noting
that he served with some of them.
By David Vergun
Army News Service
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