FedEx at Forty: Shannon Brown

The power of people.

Shannon Brown and his teams aim to live out FedEx’s “Purple Promise” on a daily basis to ensure that FedEx is a globally trusted brand.

photograph by Larry Kuzniewski

Two years after FedEx shipped its first packages, Shannon Brown graduated from Memphis’ Westwood High School. After earning a bachelor’s degree from National-Louis University in Chicago in 1978, Brown started looking for a job back home.

“My friend told me about Federal Express so I went there and they asked me what I wanted to do in this organization. I’d just finished reading a book that said always start at the top and work your way down. So, I told them I wanted to be CEO of the company. They told me that job was filled, but they had a package handler [position open] — would I take it? I said absolutely,” says Brown, now senior vice president and chief human resources officer for FedEx Express.

Since then, Brown has held 13 different job titles within the organization, has lived in a number of cities from Sacramento to Pittsburgh, and now oversees the global operations of 160,000 employees.

“Back in 1978, minimum wage was $1.65 an hour and FedEx was paying $4; so a part-time job was just as good as a full-time job outside of the organization. Then the promotion policies from within, the teamwork, and the ability to really grow if you showed desire was realized, and I’ve been having fun for almost 35 years now.”

In 1978 FedEx handled 35,000 packages a night. “This past December [17th], we did [a record] 19.8 million pieces; that’s phenomenal growth. Now we’re in 220 countries and territories. I get the opportunity to influence HR practices around the world. So I’ve had a lot of jobs, but I haven’t had to leave the company to do them.”

Also appealing was the opportunity for new experiences “for someone like me, raised in the housing projects, and now to do all of these different things and live in all of these places,” he says. “I travel all over the world to places I never even dreamed of: Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai, South Africa, Europe, etc. That’s pretty good to understand cultures around the world. Where else can you find a job where you can have as much fun?”

In his current position since 2008, Brown maintains company culture on a global scale and ensures that each team member, from fellow executives to front-line couriers, feels valued and heard.

“I travel all over the world to places I never even dreamed of. That’s pretty good to understand cultures around the world. Where else can you find a job where you can have as much fun?”

“It takes employees to move this company, not just one person,” says Brown. “I engage employees so they feel the company adds value to them, and the ‘Purple Promise’ of showing employees how they can make each experience outstanding for the customer. The customer in Memphis has to trust the brand — that the employee in China is going to live up to the purple promise and offer the same level of service in all parts of the world.Think about the economies FedEx brings together. It isn’t just promoting FedEx as being a transportation company but creating a market that brings people together to trade as partners. Now a third-world country can be on the global scene with the backdrop of Memphis. FedEx changed the way people do business.”

Brown says in his job no two days are alike, and adapting to change is a key to success. “The place never sleeps because the sun is always shining somewhere. You do event management by working on the right problem, assembling a qualified team to solve it, and trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

If there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that nothing is impossible. “We can build an organization of this size in just my short career,” he says. “I wanted to be exposed to everything and learn as much as I can learn, and that opens your mind up to the power of what people can do. That’s what’s phenomenal about FedEx — harnessing the power of what people can do when they are provided direction and strategy.” 

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