Despite the story that Fred Smith came up with the idea for Federal Express in a term paper for a Yale University class, it was this entrepreneur's experience during the Vietnam War that really allowed Smith to glimpse the future. From 1967 through 1969 he served two tours of duty, first as a rifle platoon leader in the U.S. Marines and later as an air controller.
It was a profoundly formative experience. For one thing, Smith got to see up close the awe-inspiring logistical efforts of the military, effectively mobilizing more than half-a-million troops and millions of tons of supplies. The discipline, training, and leadership experience would stick with the Marine captain. "When people ask me what principles have guided me since I started FedEx Corp. years ago," he says, "my answer often startles them: It's the leadership tenets that I learned in the U.S. Marine Corps during my service in Vietnam."
In the Marine Corps it was not heretical to have ground and air groups together. "When you come ashore in landing boats, you don't have any artillery, so the Marine Corps is the branch of the service that actually invented close air support, dropping ordnance close to you. So I made Federal Express an integrated air-ground system. It had its own pickup and delivery operations on the ground that were integral to the hub-and-spoke air operation."
Smith's leadership handbook draws heavily upon his Marines experience. "We tell our executives that the key to their success is to rely on their first-level managers [the company's counterparts to noncommissioned officers], to set an example themselves, and to praise in public when someone has done a good job. All those are standard operating procedure in the Marines."
Ultimately Smith, 67, gave many small businesses the customer reach that had long been the province of far larger companies. It was a game-changing innovation for FedEx, but also for the broader entrepreneurial economy.
Their impact may not be as deep at that of our contenders, but these five innovators still stand in a class of their own.
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