FedEx founder credits Marine Corps for giving him the tools to succeed

by Tommy Grant

Frederick Smith founded the multibillion-dollar shipping company FedEx, was enshrined in the Business and Aviation Halls of Fame, earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, and has been recognized as one of the greatest living business minds in the world.

But he thinks perhaps the most meaningful honor he has ever received was when his Marines dug a hole for him.

“When I was company commander in Vietnam, it was a hard way to make a living,” Smith said. “We were out on operations virtually the whole time … and so I had to go up and talk to the colonel nearly every day, while my troops were setting into positions, digging their fighting holes. And I’d dig my hole when I came back from the briefing.”

“Then one night, I came back, and my troops had dug my fighting hole for me. They were as tired or more tired, but they took their energy to take care of me. And it was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it told me they cared for me, they appreciated my leadership.”

Smith, Military Times’ 2024 Veteran of the Year, has long insisted that he learned more about being successful in business from his three years in the Marine Corps than his time at Yale Business School.

The 79-year-old entrepreneur and business innovator said college helped him learn how companies work. The military taught him how people work.

“If you take care of your troops, they’re gonna take care of you, and they’ll accomplish any mission,” he said. “The Marine Corps makes you put your troops first. And the most important part of the FedEx equation is the frontline folks, not the people back at headquarters.”

“We can have the best airplanes, the best vehicles, the best automation, but at the end of the day, if you can get extra effort out of everybody, particularly in the service delivery, then you can outperform the competition.”

During a 2022 speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Dinner, Smith said that FedEx’s success is owed to its many early veteran employees and quipped that “if you could fly, drive a truck, or lift a box, if you served in Vietnam, you had a job.” The company regularly hands out Bravo Zulu awards to overachieving employees, a tradition echoing back to Smith’s Marine Corps service.

He said that ethos of focusing on people — one he strove to instill at every level of FedEx during his 50-plus years leading the company — stems from “eating meals and sleeping on the ground” during his tours of Vietnam, a deployment punctuated by his Silver Star award for heroism in May 1968.

During a search and destroy operation, the young first lieutenant rushed through incoming fire to direct counterattacks and overtake enemy defensive positions. Military officials lauded his “courage, aggressive leadership and unfaltering devotion to duty at great personal risk” in their citation for the award.

Smith, who was wounded twice during his time in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star, said earning the respect of his men was more valuable than any other recognition he received. He also lost six friends during the war, a burden he says he carries with him daily.

When he left the military, Smith didn’t leave behind that idea of service and teamwork. While growing FedEx from a small aircraft maintenance company to one of the world’s largest transportation firms, he was also involved in numerous philanthropic efforts, many with military ties.

He served as co-chairman of both the U.S. World War II Memorial project and the campaign for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, helping raise money and public support for both locations. Smith had six family members serve in World War II, making that project one “where I just felt like I couldn’t say no.”

In 2022, he donated $65 million to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, a gift organizers said would benefit thousands of military families.

“I just love the mission of that,” he said. “Providing education for the children of Marines and Navy personnel who served with Marines, that just put an exclamation point on my appreciation for what the Marine Corps taught me.

“I never went to graduate school at all, but I joke that I got an extra degree from U-S-m-C, and I just kinda garble up the M to confuse folks. But as I’ve gotten older and look back, I realize how defining my time in the Marine Corps was to my whole life, and it makes me want to give back.”

For the past 23 years, Service Members of the Year awards have honored one outstanding military (active duty, Guard or Reserve) member from each branch of service. They are selected based on exemplary military service that goes beyond the call of duty. The honorees and their families are being flown to Washington, D.C., for a visit to the nation’s capital and a special awards ceremony attended by congressional, military and community leaders. The awards ceremony will take place on April 24, 2024. To watch the livestream of the event, register here.

See all of Military Times’ 2024 Service Members of the Year honorees.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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