Rethinking the Impossible

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Professor Hall stood in front of the young man’s desk with a thin-lipped frown. He removed his glasses and stared. The Economics Professor shook his head and put his glasses back on before dropping the paper in the young man’s lap.

The young man shoved the paper in his bag and shuffled out of the classroom. Another “gentleman’s C” to add to his list of lackluster assignments. He was a student at Yale but he felt out of place. His fraternity brothers would probably go on to be Presidents and Congressmen. He, on the other hand, could barely get a “C” on his assignments.

He laughed to himself and shook his head. Above, he watched an airplane fly by and smiled.

He had bigger plans.

And Professor Hall had just read the blueprint without even knowing it.

As a young boy, he was fascinated by planes. All he wanted to do was spend his time in the clouds. His father had amassed a small fortune by selling his motorcoach company to the Greyhound Corporation, but tragically passed away when the boy was only 4 years old, leaving him everything.

The boy was born with a bone socket hip disorder, so he was forced to avoid sports and wear braces during his childhood. When he finally regained his health, he was running, jumping, and as soon as he could — flying.

He got his amateur pilots license at the age of 15, flying crop dusters around his hometown of Marks, Mississippi.

When the boy graduated from Yale, he joined the Marines in the midst of the Vietnam War.

He went from flying small planes in fields to traveling in massive helicopters.

He was a platoon leader during his first deployment and lead a diverse group of young men. His marines were steelworkers, truck drivers, and cashiers. He learned to lead by example.

One fateful afternoon, his platoon was ambushed with heavy artillery fire. Without hesitation, he sprinted into the chaos and helped carry his injured marines out of harm’s way. Barking out orders, they repelled the attack and survived. For his actions, he earned the Silver Star, the Armed Forces’ third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat. He served two tours of combat and was awarded two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained during battle.

Along with his medals, he took away something else from his time in the military. It was an awe of the intricacies of military logistics. Planes, helicopters, and trucks all moved in concert to get supplies to and from the front lines. He thought back to the paper he’d written in college for Professor Hall’s Econ class and vowed to make it real when he got back from the war.

When he returned to the States, he surveyed the business climate.

Society was moving towards automation. Computing was on the rise. But there was one thing that was slowing things down. It was good ole’ Uncle Sam.

He was going to create a new company that would compete with the federal government.

But first, he needed more capital. He had his inheritance money from his father, but it wasn’t enough. To raise the extra money, he turned to venture capitalists.

After three independent marketing studies confirmed his business thesis, he managed to raise the capital he needed to get started.

Things didn’t go according to plan. Two years later, he was on the verge of bankruptcy and was desperate for a loan to tide the business over.

After an unsuccessful sales meeting in Chicago, he flew to Las Vegas with the company’s last $5,000. He bet it all in blackjack.

He showed up on Monday with $27,000 in winnings.

His bet gave the company the small runway they needed to finalize and launch a new advertising campaign.

The campaign was a hit, and the company’s luck began to turn around. The advertising slogan was:

“When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

You see, the paper that he wrote back at Yale was a hypothesis that a company could be created that could ship a package and get it delivered the very next day. Guaranteed.

In today’s world of Amazon Prime and drone delivery, this is far from radical. But back then, his integrated air and ground system had never been done before.

He wrote the original blueprint for the “hub and spoke model” in Professor Hall’s Econ class. He theorized that packages could be shipped via air to central “hubs” and ground transport would take them the rest of the way to their destination.

It was one of the most complex businesses in history.

Hoping he could win a contract to transport checks for the Federal Reserve System, the man decided to call the company ‘Federal Express’. The name didn’t help them enough to win the contract, and ultimately they shortened the name to FedEx.

In 2001, the company finally earned their name in the form of a groundbreaking contract with Uncle Sam. FedEx would transport large mail shipments for the United States, and in return, FedEx drop boxes would be added to U.S. Post Offices.

The business founder, heroic Marine Officer, and the boy who loved to fly is none other than Fred Smith.

Fred Smith is still the chairman and CEO of FedEx, and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history.

Today, FedEx employs more than 45,000 employees globally with over 65 billion dollars in annual revenue. Most importantly, Fred Smith inspired a generation of entrepreneurs to rethink the impossible.

That’s his story, what’s yours going to be?

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Episode 96