Many of us know about Frederick Wallace Smith, the founder, chairman, and CEO of FedEx. However, not all of us know about his beginnings, the idea that cemented the birth of FedEx, and where he learned the needed skills for commandeering the game-changing trend of the world’s first express overnight delivery service.
Fred Smith was born in Marks, Mississippi on August 11, 1944. His father, James Frederick Smith, was the founder of the Toddle House restaurant chain and the Dixie Greyhound Lines (formerly known as the Smith Motor Coach Company). His father died when he was only four which left him and his siblings to be raised by his mother and uncles.
As a young boy, Smith suffered from Legg-Calvé-Perthes syndrome which was a potentially crippling disease. In a manner reminiscent of Forrest Gump, this congenital birth defect caused him to wear braces and walk with the aid of crutches for most of his early life. Thankfully, he eventually grew out of the disease and even played both basketball and football.
Influenced by his great interest in flying, he was able to become an amateur pilot as a teen which later on helped develop his skills as a Forward Air Controller, flying in the back seat of the OV-10. He studied Economics at Yale University in 1962 and it was there that his idea for an overnight delivery service was born when he wrote a paper for one of his professors. After graduation, Fred Smith enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served for three years from 1966 to 1969.
He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1969. He was ranked as Captain and received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. He also served as a Forward Air Controller for the OV-10 Bronco.
As one of the most versatile aircraft used by the US Army, the OV-10 Bronco was the source of many victories during the Vietnam War. During that time, the OV-10’s unique adaptability enabled it to perform many missions for the Marines, Air Force, and Navy. And although it is slower than jets, it is easier to maneuver. It is also faster than helicopters and more tactically versatile. Combine all of those characteristics with being primarily a forward air control aircraft equipped with machine guns, bombs, and rockets and you get the perfect reconnaissance aircraft capable of being ferocious in an instant.
As a forward air controller, Smith’s task was to locate the enemy and quickly report their location as well as their strength. It was the FAC’s mission to call in the heavy artillery to reduce or even eliminate the threat. But even without the help of heavy artillery, the OV-10 Bronco is capable of inflicting a lot of damage on its own while waiting for backup. And if the situation is right, backup won’t even be needed. This is why during its arrival in Vietnam in 1968, the aircraft quickly developed a reputation that made the Viet Cong think twice about trying to shoot at it.
In addition to the Marine Corps citations that he earned in ground combat, he also flew over 200 ground-support missions as a forward air control in OV-10 Broncos.
On February 28, 2014, during the “Battlefield to Boardroom” event at the Pentagon, he would later relate that “Everything that went into FedEx that made the business what 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”. According to him, his wartime experiences gave him a deep appreciation not only for the leadership qualities of Marines but also for their organizational structure.
Using everything he learned, he integrated air-ground operations and ensured that everything from the pickup and delivery personnel to the pilots was all well-coordinated. And that is how, to this day, he makes every FedEx experience outstanding. That is also how a military forward air controller started one of America’s greatest companies.