Up In The Air...

In The Beginning

Back in the mid 1970s, when I spent summers in Memphis, I used to play pick-up basketball with my three teenaged brothers-in-law and their pals at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Frayser. I was still in my twenties, yes, but was among the handful of “older” guys among the teenagers who gathered at the gym regularly. The games were fiercely competitive — there were no referees — and it seemed that I was usually matched up against one guy in particular who was a few years older than me. He was dating the older sister of my brother-in-law’s best friend, and he could be pretty ferocious. I was taller than he was, but he was tougher, for sure. You didn’t want to get in Fred Smith’s way when he was driving to the basket.

Back then, Fred was clearly bringing the same competitive spirit to his day job that he was bringing to the gym. Smith had just started an unusual air-freight company, one that flew stuff everywhere to and from the Memphis airport. None of us really understood that concept, but while it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, it did seem even to us that Federal Express and its Memphis hub operation were clearly going places.

Smith’s company was growing in leaps and bounds when I moved to Memphis permanently in 1978 and started freelancing for a then two-year-old magazine called Memphis. I came up with an idea for a feature story, one about my basketball rival and his “little” air-freight company. The editor liked it and decided to put the article on the magazine’s cover that summer, under the title “Fred Smith’s Million Dollar Dream Machine.” Yes, believe it or not, there was a time when FedEx’s annual revenues were measured in millions, not billions.

Of course that was a long, long time ago. This month Fred Smith’s “dream machine” celebrates its fortieth birthday, with annual revenues of over $44 billion, and nearly 300,000 employees in 220 countries and territories around the world. Today, FedEx is quite literally a household name, one of a handful of twentieth-century brands that have made that seamless transition from a noun into a verb. The guy who barreled past me regularly on the basketball court did more than just start Memphis’ largest-ever company; he’s added his company’s name to the dictionary!

Speaking of names, Fred Smith’s is almost as synonymous with this city’s as it is with FedEx’s. Back in 1999, in fact, we put him on this magazine’s cover as one of the three most influential Memphians of the Century (see above), along with E.H. Crump and that guy named Elvis. Unlike Crump and Presley, Smith has always kept a low profile in the hometown he has so much shaped, always quick to point out that the remarkable FedEx success story has been a team effort from the very beginning.

Here, then, is our salute to that entire FedEx team, both here in its headquarters city and around the globe. And thanks, Fred, for making such a difference in Memphis.

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