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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Sherry Little paid attention when people began to talk about a new type of airline. A student at Memphis State, she had worked several years for Hi-Air, a division of Holiday Inns, and “that really intrigued me — an airline for packages. I wanted to find out more.”
A friend put her in touch with his friend — a young fellow by the name of Fred Smith, and Smith actually wrote her back, encouraged her to apply for a job, and enclosed a job application. She had to fly to Little Rock, since that’s where the company headquarters were in the early days, and she got the job. “I didn’t actually interview with Fred Smith,” she laughs, “but I still have his letter, framed.”
Little was FedEx employee #268 and was one of the very first people to work in the Memphis office. In fact, she is today the longest tenured woman at the company. Back then, the overnight delivery service was still in the works, and the company was mainly running chartered freight. “They gave me a room, a desk, and a telephone, and my job was to tell anyone who called all the great things I could about Federal Express.”
It wasn’t exactly a promising beginning. “We were in an office building on Sprankel [off Democrat], and we didn’t even have the whole building — just the second floor. A precast-concrete firm had the ground floor, and I had to climb over all this concrete just to get to the stairwell. I remember thinking, ‘What have I done?’”
By early 1973, FedEx began to ramp up its services in Memphis, and in April of that year began its vaunted overnight delivery service, to just 25 cities at first, and then slowly expanding its coverage.
“We had a fleet of Falcons,” says Little, “and I can remember watching them refurbish the planes, painting them all purple, but they didn’t stay purple long because it tended to show every little scratch, so they soon went with all-white.”
Little began to work in the claims and customer service division, helping customers trace their deliveries. “I remember going to a company meeting, and Fred was telling us how one day we could sit at our desk and track a package on our computer,” she says. “We laughed, because back then a computer was the size of a room. But he had a vision, and all we had to do was grasp it.”
That wasn’t so easy to do when the most high-tech equipment you had was a telephone. Each day, the couriers would call Little and her colleagues and report when and where their deliveries were made. Each night, the airbills were hand-delivered to her offices.
“Customers would call us if they wanted to find a package, and we had to go through the delivery records one by one,” she says. “All we had was one filing cabinet, which only one person could use at a time, and so an engineer came in and built a big wooden box, and all the airbills went into that.”
Looking back over the years, she says the most amazing advancement has been the advent of computers in every phase of the operation. “It’s just been mind-boggling,” she says, “to go from a delivery record on paper to everything stored on a computer.”
One thing that hasn’t changed about FedEx is the company’s “whatever it takes” culture. “Everybody really wanted the company to succeed.” For her, that meant working her regular 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, going home for a few hours, and then returning to work to finish tracking more packages. “That way, our sales team could go to their customers and show how we had tracked all their packages, and it helped them close the deal.”
In later years, Little moved into the media relations department. One year, she was chosen as the media assistant for a special project: bringing a pair of pandas from the National Zoo in China to Edinburgh, Scotland. “It was a really big deal. We worked with the zoo to set up the event, and the media coverage was just insane, because everyone was so eager to see the pandas. That was the most amazing trip of my entire life.”