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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 (page: 2 / 5)

Founder, Federal Express

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  Frederick W. Smith

How were you affected by your Vietnam experience?

Frederick Smith: Profoundly, in many ways, some good, some bad. Obviously, the war was a very traumatic thing for all of us who participated in it. Clearly, one of the great historical mistakes of all times. Barbara Tuchman wrote a great book about the great historical mistakes: George III losing the colonies, the Catholic Church losing the monopoly on Christendom, and Johnson's prosecution of the Vietnam War. For those of us who were in it, it was very traumatic, as anything like that would be, but there were some good things about it, too.

I learned an awful lot in the Marine Corps -- particularly about, I think, how to treat people, lead people -- which has played a big role in FedEx. A big part of the employee relations systems and all that we have at our company came from my experience in the service. The Marine Corps is the best when it comes to teaching people how to lead other folks. And so, it had a profound experience on me, some bad, some good.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Can you be more specific about what you learned about interpersonal relations?

Frederick Smith: Well, you have to remember,

When I was in the Marine Corps as a lieutenant, I had come up from a good background, went to a fine university at Yale. I wasn't exactly exposed to folks that were in the blue collar professions and occupations. And then here I was in the Marine Corps, and became a platoon leader, and I was surrounded by kids like that. I maybe was three years older than they were. I was 21, they were 18. But these were youngsters from very different backgrounds than I was. You know, blue collar backgrounds, steelworkers, and truck drivers, and gas station folks. And there we were, out in the countryside in Vietnam, living together, eating together and obviously going through all sorts of things.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

I think I came up with a very, very different perspective than most people that end up in senior management positions about what people who wear blue collars think about things and how they react to things, and what you should do to try to be fair to those folks. So in that regard it was an invaluable experience. And a great deal of what FedEx has been able to accomplish was built on those lessons I learned in the Marine Corps.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Was there anyone in particular in the Marines who had a profound impact on you?

Frederick Smith: There were several people who profoundly affected me. One was my platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Jack Jackson, who was a very wise man, about 10 or 15 years older then I was. I was the officer and he was the senior NCO, and of all of the education I ever got, I think he was the one that gave me the Ph.D., so to speak. I also had a very close friend in our battalion chaplain, Father Vince Capodano, who had a profound effect on me. He ended up receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, as a matter of fact. I think those two people had a big effect on me.

What did you learn from Sergeant Jackson?

Frederick Smith: Sergeant Jackson was a man who knew the ways of the world. He knew the way nine-to-five, blue-collar folks look at things. He gave me a real education on that. He was a wonderful man and taught me a lot.

When I first met Sergeant Jackson I had grown a mustache and had taken up the affectation of smoking cigars, because I thought this made me look, you know, quite dashing and much older than my 22 years, or what have you. And the first thing that Sergeant Jackson did after I asked him to, in essence, take the insignia off, you know, just tell me straight up what I could do to improve my performance. And he told me, he said, "Well, the first thing, shave off that ridiculous mustache, and quite smoking the cigars -- because you look absurd -- and be yourself." And I don't think I ever forgot that. I don't think I ever tried an affectation after that point in my life.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

He told me I looked like a smooth-faced kid trying to be something that I wasn't. That stuck with me a long time, to this day.

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