Monday, September 10, 2007

Small is Beautiful

There was a time when the term FedEx was unknown to the world; now it’s much like the verb 'to hoover' - it has become a generic term for small packages. FedEx started as a small package operator in the USA in 1973 and operated from a hub in Memphis, Tennessee. Their unusual concept was to fly every single package into and out of this one hub. So if a shipment was going to New York from Atlanta it still went via Memphis. To begin with many airline people were sceptical of the company’s ability to succeed. Most people working in the airfreight business were quick to say, “It’ll never catch on.”

In 1976 British Caledonian had begun a service to Houston in Texas from London. There were no problems in filling the aircraft from Houston to London with cargo, on account of the plentiful oil spares traffic, there was scant cargo in the other direction. Having read about Federal Express I thought the concept was brilliant and I wrote to their founder and Chief Executive, Fred Smith, and suggested that there might be some mileage in developing a door-to-door small package service across the Atlantic. In 1977 just after Elvis had died I visited Memphis and we began working out the logistics. If people were sceptical of FedEx in America the laughed out loud at the idea of doing it across the Atlantic.

Undaunted I persevered and eventually won the backing of the board for such a scheme. The idea was to offer a pick up of a small package in London, fly it to Houston, where the package would be taken into the FedEx system. From there it would be flown to Memphis and then delivered the next day to the customer’s door. In theory a Monday pick-up in London would be delivered anywhere in America on Wednesday…and so on.

After much planning and organization, mostly against the wishes of the traditional cargo people, the service, which we called ‘Top Priority’, was ready to launch. We decided that we needed an important small package with a bit of kudos attached to it and we came up with the idea of delivering a gold record that had been awarded to Buddy Holly. Maria Elena, his widow lived in Lubbock in Texas and it was duly organized. In order to get some coverage from the press we arranged a breakfast at Gatwick with Tony Blackburn no less, (this was when his celebrity was such that he didn’t need to go into the jungle to get the public’s attention) to send the package on its way. Everything went off fine, we got some PR and for the next couple of days life went on as normal.

Somehow or another the gold disc got lost – it’s never been found. It was an omen. We never could get people excited about the concept; small packages across the Atlantic as far as the great British public were concerned were never going to catch on.

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