Sheridan Garrison: A Man of Principals

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In 1982, Sheridan Garrison, with the help of a small group of employees, organized American Freightways. By 2000, he had led the company to become the nation\’s fourth largest LTL carrier.
In November 2000, FedEx Corporation purchased American Freightways which was later combined with Viking Freight and re-branded in June 2002 as FedEx Freight.

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Sheridan Garrison: A Man of Principals

  1. 1. Sheridan Garrison: A Man of Principles Supply Chain Management Review Article – May/June 2003 Issue Written By Lisa R. WilliamsOn a Monday morning, Oct. 25, 1982, F. Sheridan Garrison and a small group of associates founded American Freightways (AF)with “not much more than a pocket full of dreams and a vision for the future,” in the words of the company’s annual report.That vision lead to a remarkable journey that saw AF quickly become the nation’s fastest growing, independently owned less-than-truckload (LTL) motor carrier. In fact, by 2000, the company had become the fourth largest LTL carrier in North America. Two yearslater, AF was purchased by FedEx for $1.2 billion in one of the biggest acquisitions of the year.Today, the company operates as FedEx Freight and Sheridan Garrison, the person who combined country wit with instinctiveleadership to make the vision a reality, sits on the board of directors of FedEx Corp. Most people would say that AF’s success waslargely due to Sheridan Garrison...most people except Garrison himself, that is.He embodies the humility found in so many leaders and displays a fatherly guidance that endears him to employees. That wasevident in a recent “Thanking our Founder Celebration,” at which employees honored the industry leader for his life-long capacity tocreate a highly positive work environment.In fact, when you walk into Garrison’s office at FedEx Freight headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., you feel like you are amongfriends. But don’t be fooled by the warm and friendly climate.When it comes to the competition, the one word which best describes the strategy used by the benevolent leader is “attack!” Overthe years, many competitors have felt the heat from the engine of a Garrison truck racing past them.The Founding PrinciplesGarrison enjoys talking about the creation of American Freightways. “We wanted to create a company that was a fire belchingdragon,” he recalls, quoting a phrase that his father, Benjamin Franklin Garrison, often used to describe a success driven enterprise.But at the same time, they wanted a company that had a heart and soul, made up of “people who have a desire to serve others.”Garrison’s first trucking company was actually Garrison Motor Freight (GMF), which he started with his father and brother in 1955.Although the carrier lost $10,000 in the first year of operation, that inauspicious beginning was no match for the determination of theGarrison family.Eventually they built a successful business—so successful, in fact, that they sold the company in 1980 for approximately $4.3million. It was during the formation of GMF that the Garrisons established their six guiding principles.These principles, hammered out at the Garrison kitchen table in the 1950s, are still appropriate more than five decades later: 1. We take care of our customers. 2. We take care of our people. 3. We honor our commitments. 4. We work hard, smart, and safely—and we always work together. 5. We make the most of resources. 6. We have fun.When visiting the FedEx Freight facility, it is Principle No. 6 that is the most evident. It’s reflected in the waves of laughter andgenuine enthusiasm that seem to emanate continually from employees.While Garrison’s journey has not always been smooth, it has always showcased his leadership skills. Times were particularly toughin December 1997 when it was announced that expected earnings of 19 cents per share would only reach 5 cents at best.While others may have worried that the company was teetering on the brink of failure, Garrison knew that the downturn was “only ashort-term effect of long term thinking.”According to Peter Drucker, too many leaders focus on short-term results—a myopic view that can be detrimental to anorganization’s longevity.Garrison’s long-term perspective may have been the strategic driver that pulled his company forward and rallied his employeestoward the success the company eventually achieved.In regards to the current sluggish economy and challenges facing his industry, Garrison says people need to keep their focus. “Youcan’t worry about the big picture,” he explains. “You should remain informed about global issues, but you have a job to do.Stay focused on your objectives. If you become mesmerized by the world’s problems, you may lose sight of your primary business.”Then leaning forward, he adds, “You have to try to make hay while the sun shines,” using one of his characteristic aphorisms.
  2. 2. Common-Sense LeadershipAlthough classic leadership books line his shelves, Garrison prefers to lead by his own internal navigational system, or what he callssimple common sense.“One thing I’ve learned from helping take AF to 40 states of all-points coverage is that people are pretty much the sameeverywhere,” the industry veteran says. “Trust them and give them respect, recognize their accomplishments, and they will give youmuch more.The great majority of people really want to do a good job. You’ve got to like interacting with people, and you’ve got to know that theyare the true tie-breakers when it comes to beating the competition.”“People should be hired for their hearts and minds, not their backs.”“The most important aspect of our business is our people because they’re the ones on the front lines, taking care of our customers,”he continues. “You manage processes and lead people. Leaders must always extend themselves first when interacting with others.”Even though Parkinson’s disease may have slowed him down physically in recent years, Garrison’s quick wit and ability to connectwith people remains as sharp as ever. When walking through the halls, he is the first to greet employees, calling each by name andasking how they and their families are doing.Garrison believes strongly in the importance of creating a supportive work environment. “It enables people to take pride in theirwork,” he explains, adding that managers need to understand the difference between supporting and suffocating people. WhileGarrison is always acutely aware of what is happening in his organization, he does not interfere with employees’ job performance.His philosophy is simple: “Leave people alone to do what they are hired to do.” That’s especially true in the transportation business,he notes, offering this advice to new leaders: “People in trucking like freedom and dislike being overly supervised. Train people, andthen let them succeed.”Garrison’s self-described “bull headedness” and ability to communicate complicated leadership philosophies simply and directlythrough humorous stories is legendary.So is his ability to motivate. In fact, no less a motivator than Coach Lou Holtz of Notre Dame and now South Carolina football fame,presented a football to Garrison with this inscription: “Your courage and attitude are an inspiration to me.”Sheridan Garrison is a unique combination of apparent opposites—a warm and supportive leader and an intensely fierce competitor.He wraps his leadership wisdom in Southern charm and infectious humor that has made him all the more effective as a leader.These same qualities have helped him surmount some formidable obstacles to transform a pocket full of dreams into what is now acore component of a $2 billion enterprise. “You manage processes and lead people. Leaders must always extend themselves first when interacting with others.” F. Sheridan Garrison 1934 – 2004

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