January 16, 2012
Column | outbound

The man from Memphis

Who's the nation's greatest living and active CEO? Our vote goes to someone right here in our industry.

By Mitch Mac Donald

If there is a greater living and active American CEO than Fred Smith, let that person step forward.

The death late last year of Apple Inc. founder and chairman Steve Jobs, and the near-deification process that ensued, gave us pause to reflect on the qualities that make up "the immortal CEO."

Our criteria were pretty straightforward: He or she would have built a household name company. His or her influence would extend well beyond a single industry to reach an exalted place in American business and popular culture. More to the point, the individual would still be at it, not retired, deceased, or kicked upstairs into a ceremonial role.

We thought we'd have to extend our search outside our industry—after all, one generally doesn't look to logistics or supply chain management for examples of towering executive machinery. But our ruminations actually led us back to our bailiwick. And to one man: Fred Smith of FedEx.

Examine the record. Smith founded a company and built it into a nearly $40 billion global giant. He re-drew the boundaries of physical distribution, transformed commerce, and changed forever how people interact with one another. He fused transportation and information technology in ways no one had done before. He had a profound impact on collateral industries like marketing and advertising, with commercials that would become the stuff of legend.

Here's the kicker: Smith has been at it, day in and day out, for more than 40 years.

There is no "emeritus" in his vocabulary. He doesn't hold the "president," "chairman," and "CEO" titles for show. While he has always delegated authority, there is no doubt who still runs FedEx. It has been this way, continuously, since its incorporation as "Federal Express" in 1971.

Think about it. Even Steve Jobs walked away from his baby after being fired by his own board. Hell would have to freeze over before Fred Smith suffered the same fate. One can only imagine the intensity of discussions over possible succession in the event something happens to Smith, who turns 68 later this year.

So who compares to Smith. Jobs? He's gone. Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds Corp.? Also gone. Bill Gates? Perhaps, had he not stepped away from day-to-day duties at Microsoft Corp. several years back to focus on strategic initiatives and his charitable foundation. Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle Corp.? He hasn't been at the helm nearly as long as Smith. Google's Larry Page or Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg? While their influence on society may someday surpass Smith's, both have miles to go before they can match Smith's longevity. We won't know the answer to that until 2038 or so. That's how remarkable Smith's record is.

It's tough to plow through four decades without some breakage, and FedEx and Smith have not been immune. FedEx's ballyhooed "ZapMail" high-resolution facsimile transmission and delivery service was scrapped after the 1986 Challenger disaster because the satellites to be used for the service were to have been launched through the space shuttle program. Its ambitious quest to blanket all of Europe ended in the early 1990s with the company's withdrawing from all but the continent's major commerce centers due to costs that spiraled out of control. And FedEx's plan to create a network of one-stop stores where customers could print, copy, pack, and ship whatever they wanted—launched by its $2.4 billion, all-cash purchase of Kinko's in 2003—has foundered as the proliferation of affordable and functional desktop software eroded Kinko's relevance.

Yet those missteps are unlikely to cloud Smith's legacy. His place in American business and cultural history is secure. What's more impressive is that he is still writing history, rather than just being a part of it.

There are executives who run bigger companies. Certainly, there are those with more flamboyance. But if you were asked to name the nation's—if not the world's—greatest living and active CEO, you'd be hard pressed to top the man from Memphis.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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