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Dean J. Cole Smith Talks With FedEx President and CEO Raj Subramaniam G’89 About Leadership and Advice for Current Students
Raj Subramaniam G’89 is the president and chief executive officer of FedEx Corporation. He has more than 30 years of industry experience at FedEx and is responsible for several recent transformational initiatives, including revitalizing the company’s operating strategy, profitably growing the e-commerce business, and harnessing the power of global supply chain data to drive the company’s digital transformation. In a conversation with Dean J. Cole Smith, he looked back at how his time at Syracuse University as a chemical engineering graduate student helped prepare him to lead FedEx and areas where future Syracuse University graduates can make an impact.
01What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Syracuse University?
Syracuse was my first point of entry in the United States. It holds a very special place because of that. I made so many friends in Syracuse and really got myself into the American culture. Starting with the first football game that I went to. I didn’t know what football was but I remember we had a game against Penn State and we beat them. We had a great unbeaten season the year I was there.
We formed a Syracuse cricket club and I was a captain. Syracuse University supported me and we hosted a ten-team tournament in the last year I was there. My great memories of Syracuse were the friendships and the people I met and getting my first view of American culture.
02How did how your engineering education at Syracuse help prepare you for leadership roles?
One of the core aspects of engineering is the real discipline and rigor that goes with it. Engineering is about problem-solving at the end of the day. You are taking structured and unstructured problems, looking at all the data and information that is available to you and then crafting a solution to solve that problem. You have to pay attention to the details. It is a disciplined approach: It is analytical in nature, and at the end of the day when you think about the strategic decisions that you are making in a company, the mental process that you go through to arrive at a particular decision point is similar. Especially in this day and age where there is so much dynamism in the world and so much information you have to process, you have to stay disciplined. The rigor with which you apply that discipline is very important. I think my engineering background and the core skillsets I developed through six years of engineering has stayed with me.
03When I think of FedEx I think about a commitment to logistics, sustainability and reliability. How have you seen the need for engineering and computing skills change over the years and where should a student’s focus be if they want to make an impact?
Building a network and especially a physical network is a very hard thing to do. What FedEx has done over the past 50 years is diligently build networks connecting 220 countries around the world. The core idea of a network is that you can pick up one thing in any part of the world and get it to any other part of the world in a few days. That’s the network.
For example, COVID-19 vaccine delivery—we were interested in the responsibility. We were one of only two networks that could actually deliver it. Within the United States, you had to do it within 24 hours to keep the temperature stable. We have built a physical network over fifty years that is unmatched. Associated with that is the digital network that underpins the physical network. Every day we transport millions of packages around the world and each of these packages is scanned multiple times. In other words, we have important insights on the global supply chain on a daily basis.
Moving forward, as we innovate digitally, how do we empower the data on the insights that we have to create value for our customers? Supply chains are a big topic of conversation these days. As students at Syracuse look into this area, this is a very important piece of the puzzle. I think intelligent supply chains are going to be very important for success. Making customer supply chains smarter through technology is a really important thing. Providing visibility across supply chains to more efficiently manage that and to provide a sense of reliability and predictability using intelligence and data – this is an area where engineers and engineering students can play a massive role.
04The complexity of the situation is always more complicated than what a couple of pieces of data give you. It’s the interactions, the models and understanding what’s really happening on the ground. From what you’re telling me, it seems like a well-rounded engineer or computer scientist that’s familiar with the problems, the challenges, the languages and the industrial realities is the one that’s going to make the biggest impact.
That is a very good point that you mentioned about the complexity. A lot of conversations are starting to say “simplify it for me, simplify it for me, simplify it for me,” but the reality is that the world is complex and when you oversimplify, you can lose the essence of the matter. In today’s world, to be able to deal with the complexity and to understand the complexity and don’t form the trap of oversimplification is important. The reason why a lot of engineers are now showing up in the c-suite of several corporations is because of their ability to deal with the complexity and to be able to understand the detail behind some of the issues and actually solve the problems. I think that’s very important. In terms of the different people who look at supply chains whether it’s business or computer science or engineering – this is a very holistic feel right now. The way I’m thinking about supply chain is about making sure our customers’ operations are streamlined, our operations are streamlined and, for the consumer, there’s visibility and predictability of what’s coming to them. This involves all the aspects that we just talked about.
Whether it’s a computer scientist, whether it’s an industrial engineer, whether it’s a business major: The person who can kind of put it all together will be a very valuable resource for any corporation.
05And what additional advice should we be giving to a modern engineering or computer science student?
One of the great things about what I’ve experienced over the last 35 years since I moved to the United States has been constant change. It’s almost as if someone was looking at me and saying “okay he’s getting comfortable, let’s move the comfort zone a little bit now.” It has always been about getting outside of my comfort zone and being comfortable there. I think the ability to adapt to changing circumstances while staying true to your core beliefs is a very important skill to have. For me, it is about moving either moving disciplines, moving geography or trying to take on different assignments. It has been a constant for me.
06That’s critical advice. I think it’s a healthy thing to be curious. And to be comfortably uncomfortable in the way that you’re referring to allows you to keep inventing yourself.
I’ve been a one-company person ever since I joined FedEx in 1991. I have stayed there for 31 years but within the company there has been such an element of change. I have taken different roles starting from a more analytical function to as I grew into more management roles and general management roles. It’s been a constant change and so whether you stay in one enterprise or change enterprises or change careers, you know you’ve got to be ready to change while always learning.