Smooth move

Most CEOs can only hope the inevitable transition when it’s time to move on goes this smoothly.

On June 15, Bruce Simpson, CEO of FedEx Custom Critical for the last 13 years, retired. His successor, Jack Pickard, has been with the company for 15 years in a number of key position in sales, marketing and operations. Before being named CEO, he was most recently vice president of service.

The transition took about 90 days, Pickard says, and besides replacing himself, very few positions in the company were affected.

Simpson had worked at the company since 1983, first, as director of sales, then moving into a vice president position, and then, from 1988 until June 2001, as president and CEO. During that time, he gained a reputation as one of the Akron’s most accessible CEOs.

When Simpson started with the company, it was a growing niche shipping service called Roberts Express. The Akron-based company was quickly gaining a national reputation as the premier nonstop, door-to-door ground shipping service for critical deliveries such as hazardous or temperature-sensitive materials, high-value products and other shipments in need of special attention.

In 1998, Roberts Express, which had been owned by a family of companies called Caliber, was acquired by FedEx. Its name was changed to FedEx Custom Critical a year later.

Becoming part of the $20 billion revenue FedEx corporation was a positive experience for Simpson.

“I can’t tell you how upbeat we were from a leadership standpoint,” he recalls. “There were some challenges as a part of the Caliber family. The Caliber Group was struggling from a financial standpoint, and we have always been able to — thankfully — continue to grow and be a profitable entity. We were thrilled when we were acquired by FedEx. It’s a magnificent corporation. It’s a powerful brand name. We had an excellent fit from the standpoint of where our services could be identified and distinct within the services that they provide.

“From a cultural standpoint, we were obsessed with the customer just like they are.”

The acquisition was one of the landmark events Simpson navigated during his tenure as CEO. When small- to mid-sized companies are bought out by larger corporations, the experience does not always yield such positive sentiments on the part of those being acquired.

“First of all, they (FedEx) did a lot of homework,” Simpson says. “People have different motivations for selling. A, the purpose of the strategic fit: What would be the synergies and market strategies that would be purposeful in that process? And B, (the buyer must do) a cultural assessment. What is the definition of the culture? When you say, ‘How do you define your culture?’ people sometimes roll their eyes. You can have a mission statement down on the wall, but do you really believe in it? Do you walk the talk? Do people understand it?

“All the things that we have about our culture fit with FedEx.”

After seeing through the acquisition and name change, Simpson began to plan his retirement. He decided that on his 61st birthday, he would move with his family to Hilton Head, S.C., to live year-round. While he will stay on the board of directors of FedEx Custom Critical, he passed the reigns of leadership on to Pickard.

“He’s been my planned successor for a long time,” Simpson says. “He’s got dynamic capabilities, leadership qualities and an understanding of our business and all the appropriate future vision that I think is necessary.”

Simpson was reluctant to pass along any advice with the job title.

“I think leadership is a subject that thousands of books are written about every year,” he says. “He’ll be a good leader. The important thing in this whole process is to continue to perpetuate the culture that we have, that really, in addition to this unique service that we provide, stimulates us.

“The essence of this very company was to meet perfect expectations of your customer. How we define that and measure that was so foundational to our ability to grow and develop and create the market.”

After a month at the helm, Pickard says the transition really did go as well as Simpson had predicted. He credits the fact that Simpson had been his boss for 15 years.

“As transitions go, this thing has really been smooth and seamless,” he says. “All of the players are really familiar to everybody. It’s not like you’re bringing someone in from the outside.

“There’s a lot to be said for stability at top management.”

So far, Pickard is continuing to lead the company’s growth. On July 25, he led the ceremonies at the groundbreaking for the company’s new headquarters in Green, which is being constructed to accommodate a staff that has grown by 100 since January. How to reach: FedEx Custom Critical, (800) 633-6530

Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine.