FedEx at Forty: How It All Began
Three of the company's earliest employees recall how FedEx got off the ground.
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Like Popp and many other FedEx employ- ees, Downie Talbot remembers the exact day he was hired — March 7, 1973, and his employee number: 448. After studying political science at Hendrix College in Arkansas, he worked with the U.S. Capitol police force in Washington, D.C., before his 40-year career with FedEx “just dropped into my lap.”
Talbot’s brother lived down the street from Fred Smith in Little Rock, and arranged a job interview. Talbot remembers that Smith asked if he could fly “because in those days we were mainly looking for pilots,” but he landed essentially the same job he has today, as manager of Global Operations Control, supervising the employees who keep track of every plane, every shipment.
Every day he participates in a worldwide conference call, “where we look back on the past 24 hours and look ahead to the next 24 hours, reviewing all operations, delays, weather, and other issues. I get to be a Monday-morning quarterback, which is awesome for me.”
In the early days, Talbot says his team used old drafting tables and actually hand-drew the flight plans on big sheets of paper for every plane in the fleet, every night. Of course, that’s not as formidable as it sounds when the company had only 14 Falcons serving just 25 cities. Another device they employed was a wall map of the U.S., with one end of a ribbon (“in the beginning, I think it was just a shoelace”) pinned to Memphis. They would stretch the ribbon to various cities, and by counting the marks along the ribbon, determine the flying time for those Falcons to any city in America.
Another “bleeding-edge innovation,” as Talbot puts it, was a Rolodex. Yes, a card file. In the early 1970s, his staff scribbled down the standard flight information on index cards, along with the contact information for the planes and airports. A very basic communication system allowed them to talk to pilots by a regular telephone, whenever they changed a flight — if the Falcon from Newark needed to stop by Pittsburgh for an extra load, for example. “Of course, now we have satellite hookup and computers,” he says, smiling, “so the level of engineering is much more sophisticated.”
In the 1970s, Talbot remembers, a beer joint on Democrat called Lamb’s became a hangout for employees when their shifts were over. “Back then, we were a lot smaller operation, and we knew all the pilots,” he says. “We’d go over there and talk about the night’s operations, any issues they saw out in the field, or at other airports. That was our main chance in flight control to see it from their perspective.”
How small was the operation? Well, the first crew bus — designed to ferry flight crews from the planes back to the hub — was little more than “a motorcycle thing with a trailer” driven by one of the pilot’s wives. “Other pilots saw that and said, ‘Hey, we want one of those!’ so we have a fleet of crew buses now.”
Talbot clearly remembers the first night of operations in Memphis, when FedEx shipped only 186 packages. “The sort belt was only 50 feet long” — it’s more than a mile today — “but I remember thinking, why do you need this long belt? Just set everything on a table and have the crew pick up their packages and go.”
What did he think about such a slow start? “I wasn’t concerned about that first night,” he says. “The package count didn’t matter to us. We were tremendously excited because we knew we were headed in the right direction.”