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Friday, May 1, 2009 - 09:37

Rhicke Jennings has worked in some 17 countries. With his position in such an international business as FedEx, he may be the perfect model for the global manager. By Jason Day

FedEx Express, that quintessentially American company, boasts impressive statistics.

For example, it has the world's largest airfleet and operates some 672 aircraft. It has a ground fleet of some 44,000 vehicles. It uses 143,000 employees worldwide to move some 7.5 million shipments daily to a service area of 220 countries and territories.

The child of an expatriate, Rhicke Jennings, who moved to Australia to take up the role of Managing Director for Australasia, has an impressive background himself. He has worked for FedEx for 18 years - all but one of those spent overseas from his native US - was educated in Asia, and has worked in 17 different countries as diverse as Belgium and Thailand.

"My children were born overseas, too, so we very much consider ourselves part of the global community," says Jennings. "Having that variety of experience changes the approach going into a new market. That's always been the mindset: what is it that makes Australia the country that it is? What are its beliefs and values? Because that is how my employees will be thinking."

Jennings's patch includes Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Pacific Islands. It's a vast territory that stretches from Sumatra all the way across to French Polynesia. He is, ultimately, responsible for the vision of the service; pick-up and delivery operations, receiving, loading and off-loading of FedEx aircraft, package processing, customs clearance and customer notification.

"What's fascinating about FedEx is that we have our own culture and philosophy. So when we come into a new market, we believe the things that we do translate into any culture.

"FedEx lives by a philosophy called PSP: people; service; profit. We believe that if you put people first, treat them with respect, give them training and offer a good compensation package, employees will give us the discretionary effort so that our customers experience extraordinary service. In turn, our customers continue to use us, they deliver us profitability that we share part of (through a bonus arrangement) with our employees. It's self-sustaining."

Which all sounds fine and dandy, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Given that there could be no more significant challenge today than the way in which employers deal with their employees during a market downturn, FedEx's commitment to its staff is commendable.

"It's very obvious how connected we are to other markets, to Asia, to North America; we are all in this together," says Jennings. "Working with a global company like FedEx, where we take a global approach and focus to how our business responds, we have come through these types of economic situations before in our history without the need to lay off our employees. We make it clear that we're all in this together. You can imagine the employee loyalty that results from those policies."

In fact, in 2008 FedEx was placed sixth on Fortune magazine's 'World's Most Admired Companies' list, has been included for 10 consecutive years on the magazine's '100 Best Companies to Work For' list, and FedEx New Zealand was also included on the Hewitt & Associates 'Best Employers of 2008' list. It suggests that they are doing something right.

Culture and service

FedEx is very big on corporate culture and customer service. It is a focus that has served the company well in all markets. Consulting with staff and improving leadership is a cornerstone of company philosophy.

"Every year, we use a survey for feedback on issues including leadership, management, pay and benefits, service quality and so on," says Jennings. The management group meet quarterly with employees and review the results to help improve leadership styles; so it's a tool to improve communications, as well as to improve leadership quality.

"We look at employee engagement: are we involved in employees and our operation? Is the message getting to them? Do they understand our direction and our goals and do they feel that they have ownership in where the company is going? We look at service; after all, what else have we got to sell? We do regular training with our employees. A courier's initial training, for example, includes some 13 days in the classroom."

It seems a lot of training, but as Jennings explains, these are customer-facing employees who get a few minutes with the client to deliver the service. In a company that ships all sorts of commodities to 220 countries and territories, it is understandable.

In global companies, it always intrigues as to whether head office lets its local arms do things a little differently, or whether the rigid business and functional model must be adhered to. This is particularly so when it comes to getting the OK to run local innovations. So, can Jennings innovate?

"Absolutely," confirms Jennings. "Innovation is where we get breakthroughs in our service and what we do with our people. For example, we deliver all over Australia, so we have packages going to maybe 1000 postcodes in remote outback areas that must be followed up. We developed our own system, Bushman, that tracks the packages. Now the corporation is looking at it and saying this is a great idea and considering Bushman's application in other large countries."

Transformational leadership

FedEx's key challenges in the region include the opening of a new Asia Pacific hub in China at an investment of some $150 million. Perhaps less controllable is the global financial crisis, Jennings admits there has been some reduction in business as the slowdown in the economy hits, but he says they will just manage and work through those issues.

"From our global CEO and founder, Fred Smith, through to myself and my managers, we keep communicating with our employees about what's happening and what we're doing about it, so that they have confidence that we're doing the right things, and stay motivated."

Committed to ongoing leadership development, FedEx believes in transformational leadership, a preach that is practised constantly.

"The characteristics of leaders that we develop includes charisma: that is, communicating, being with people. Second is to have consideration for the individual: to get to know how they are as a person. The third consideration is intellectual stimulation: putting managers into situations that will challenge and allow development. Those are at the core of transformational leadership."

Jennings is actually a certified Kundalini yoga teacher, an activity that he says has helped him greatly in the office.

"I encourage other people to have activities that create rest and meditation; just being able to reflect is tremendous. Otherwise, you start thinking that all of this is too serious.

"I tell my employees and my management team that our business is like a game. We have this scorecard, with all these metrics; we're playing a game here. The game is scoring the next goal.

"That's where the fun is. I just ask, 'are you willing to step up to the game?'."