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The retail season is in full swing for the holidays, and it couldn’t happen without two giants of logistics, UPS and FedEx. As those brown UPS trucks remind us, the global economy thrives on “synchronizing the world of commerce.”

Not long ago, I talked with FedEx founder Fred Smith at a World 50 meeting of executives in Memphis, Tennessee. More recently I visited the company’s operations in the midst of holiday-season madness.

Here is some of what I learned:

Make no little plans. The great architect Daniel Burnham once said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

Fred Smith’s inspiration for FedEx involved no little plans. The result is the largest air-cargo company in the world: it employs 290,000 people, maintains a fleet of 75,000 trucks, and owns and operates 684 jets. It has more wide-body jets than any airline, including Boeing 777s that can fly from Shanghai to Memphis nonstop. The SuperHub, the heart of FedEx’s operations, measures four by four miles. Some 30,000 people are needed to run it.

In many ways, the SuperHub dwarfs its “big brother,” Memphis International Airport. The SuperHub is a world unto itself, with a hospital, a fire station, a meteorology unit, and a private security force; it has branches of U.S. Customs and Homeland Security, plus anti-terror operations no one will talk about. It has 20 electric power generators as backup to keep it running if the power grid goes down.

Every weekday night at the SuperHub, FedEx lands, unloads (in just half an hour, even for a super-jumbo 777), reloads, and flies out 150 to 200 jets. Its aircraft take off and land every 90 seconds. This all happens between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Central Time. The SuperHub processes between 1.2 million and 1.6 million packages a night.

From Thanksgiving to Christmas, FedEx will ship 223 million packages worldwide. Last Monday, its busiest night ever, it moved 16 million packages.

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Tagged: Computing, e-commerce, Retail Technologies, shipping

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