Frederick W. Smith Interview (page: 5 / 5)
Founder, Federal Express
How do you handle the stress, and the responsibility for all these employees?
Frederick Smith: I don't find it that stressful. I find it fun. Business is a game, it's great fun. I take enormous pride in the fact that we now have 170,000 people employed. That's what it's all about, giving people good jobs and we try to have a lot of fun. Our very famous advertising has always been tongue in cheek. The fast-talking man, and 10 or 15 years ago, up to the 1998 Super Bowl, where we ran a test pattern and put a little script down at the bottom that said, "It would have been a great commercial but they didn't send it FedEx."
How important is a sense of humor?
Frederick Smith: It's everything. I can't imagine going through life without being able to laugh at things. Even when things get bad, there's always a humorous side to it. I think it may be the most important attribute somebody can have to get through life, because everybody has tragedy, and everybody has bad things happen. If you don't have that reservoir good will, or ability to look at yourself with a little bit of humor, I think you're missing an awful lot of life.
No matter what the field, you can't please all the people all the time. How do you deal with criticism?
Frederick Smith: Criticism doesn't bother me. What we've tried to do inside FedEx is to say that criticism is a real opportunity to improve. When we do something wrong for a customer, that's when we really have a chance to learn how to do things better. We've made some mistakes from time to time, we've gotten criticized. The mistakes have been relatively small, given the overall success of the company. But I've never been bothered too much by criticism. Folks are entitled to do that. It's a free country, increasingly a free world, so let them take their best shot. If they're right, they may tell you something you didn't know before.
What do you think your most important traits have been in achieving what you have done?
Frederick Smith: Probably conviction. I was convinced that what I was trying to do with my teammates was important and that it would be successful. The opposite side of that coin is persistence. Very rarely have I ever seen any business or major undertaking that goes in a straight line. There's zigs and zags, victories and defeat, and you have to be propelled by that conviction that what you're doing is right and what you're doing is important, and to persevere in it. That's probably more important than anything else.
Secondarily, I've been very interested in the people who I work with being successful as well. I don't think we have many people who've worked at FedEx, particularly in the executive ranks, who don't have good feelings about the company. I hope that's because they feel they were treated fairly and got their shot at glory and opportunity. I think that's a big part of it. To make sure that the people you're working with have a chance to be successful.
And then, third, is that element of humor. You've got to enjoy what you're doing, and have some fun, and be able to laugh at yourself a bit.
What do you see when you look ahead? What are the challenges for Fred Smith, and what are the challenges for America?
Frederick Smith: In certain ways the big challenge for our company parallels the big challenges for the country. Our company has become enormously global in nature. FedEx and our competitors are the primary means of moving the high value-added, high-tech goods around the world. And that's what's propelling global growth today. It's not the growth in mining, and lumbering and agriculture. It's the growth in electronics, and computers, and new medicines, and equipment and things of that nature. We're the way those things get to market.
We're the thing that binds everybody else together. And successfully navigating from a mostly national economic structure, to now a global structure with different types of cultures and governments and what have you. I mean, all you have to do is pick up the newspaper and see it every day. And it's going to be important that the United States and FedEx, every year that goes by, does better in the way we deal with other cultures. And is respectful of other peoples' points of view and makes a contribution and doesn't become one of the problems in the world.
[ Key to Success ] The American Dream
So I think they're very parallel in a certain way.
Is there anything you haven't done that you'd like to do?
Frederick Smith: I would like to sit down some time and put a few thoughts down on paper. I've got a few observations that might be useful for someone. It'd be fun for me to do it, and I intend to at some point. Other than that, I enjoy my family, enjoy the business and get to see a lot of the world, so I have no complaints.
Looking back, what advice would you give to a young person who came to you for advice?
Frederick Smith: The most important piece of advice that I could give them is to take advantage of the tremendous reservoir of knowledge that's out there today. Spend some time learning how the world has evolved. There are a lot of good lessons in history, and other peoples' experiences in the past, that could be exactly the solution to the problem you're looking for. Particularly today, with everything available on-line and on the Internet, and with quick delivery of books or whatever you need, to not take advantage of this educational opportunity is a real tragedy.
What books have been important to you as an adult?
Frederick Smith: I have tried to be a student of management. There have been an enormous number of business books: Michael Porter's books on strategy and Leavitt's books on marketing, and of course Peter Drucker, the ultimate teacher on management. And a lot of books on the way societies have developed in the past.
I just finished reading one by Daniel Yergin which is very popular right now. It's called The Commanding Heights, which was a statement by Lenin about the necessity of government controlling the commanding heights of the economy, the big companies, the big economic activities. The book is about the way the market economy has overwhelmed governments and national systems everywhere. Some books like that that have really grabbed my attention over the years. Not only Yergin's current book, but his previous book, The Prize -- about the evolution of the oil industry over the years -- is probably as good as anything on how the modern world came to exist.
What books might you recommend to a young person?
Frederick Smith: A book called Modern Times by Paul Johnson, who's an irascible fellow in England, is a great compilation of all the absurdities of the 20th century. It really gives you a picture of a lot of things that have happened over the entire century that have created opportunities in the world we live in today. David Halberstam has written several good books that I would recommend to people.
What do you think the most important documents of the 20th century have been?
Frederick Smith: I think the most important documents probably precede the 20th century. I think they made a good stab at trying to set a stage for human development in the UN Charter. There's a lot of good things in there. It's been corrupted a bit by the flow of things, but if you really read it, it takes the importance of the individual -- the inherent rights that individuals have -- from the thoughts of the American Revolution, and straight back to Magna Carta.
That battle is still being fought around the world. I don't think there are many documents in modern times that are any more important than for all the nations of the world to write that down on a piece of paper and codify it. I think there's a good chance that people can build a much better world in the 21st century than they've done in the 20th on that foundation.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Frederick Smith: I think the American Dream is freedom. It's the ability to do what you want to do. It's the freedom to succeed, it's the freedom to fail. And the freedom to live your lifestyle the way you want to live it, within reason, as long as you're not hurting anybody else. To me that's the American Dream. Very few people in the history of the world have ever had that enormous opportunity.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk with you.
You're very welcome.
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This page last revised on Sep 20, 2010 09:11 EDT
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