Sunday, May 06, 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, in that 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 (BCAL) had begun a daily 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 sound and I wrote to their founder and CEO, Fred Smith, and suggested that there might be some mileage in developing a door-to-door small package service across the Atlantic. I visited Memphis in August 1977 a week after Elvis died. I took a taxi out to Gracelands to have a look; all along the walls were thousands of candles lit for the King, as well as gifts just left by the gate. Twenty years later I was back in Memphis filming a TV series and again went to Graceland. We pulled up in a van outside Graceland and stopped to wait to meet the person who was going to take us inside. The wall of Elvis's former home by then was covered in graffiti, right where we stopped was this.
It says 'Elvis hasn't left the building he just went for a walk'

Anyway, back to 1977 and there I was in Memphis meeting with the FedEx people to work out the logistics of our small package service. If people were sceptical of Fed Ex in America they laughed out loud at the idea of doing it across the Atlantic.

Undaunted I persevered and eventually won the backing of the BCAL 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 so 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 somewhere – it’s never been found to this day. 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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