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When your Valentine's Day flowers absolutely, positively, have to be there overnight

Adam Rivera/NBC News

By Ronnie Polidoro
Rock Center

As FedEx finishes hundreds of thousands of overnight deliveries for Valentine’s Day, one might guess that the arrow in the FedEx logo belongs to Cupid – and since it is the company’s second busiest holiday, you wouldn’t be too far off.

What today’s romantic procrastinators may not fully appreciate is that before Fred W. Smith founded FedEx in 1973, would-be Cupids had to plan ahead because overnight delivery wasn’t as streamlined as it is today.

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Today, FedEx is not just the company’s name but a verb Americans use every day to describe what you do when something “absolutely, positively has to be there overnight,” as the company’s slogan advertised starting in 1978.  But dropping off a package in your office’s mailroom with an overnight Airbill is just the first step of a well-choreographed ballet.

“It never stops. It’s always going,” Sally Hammer, a 17-year FedEx veteran told NBC News.

NBC News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams witnessed FedEx’s choreography first-hand while sorting packages, filling letter bags and even ‘shipping’ himself in the jump seat of one of the company’s new Boeing 777’s.

Williams was unloaded at the FedEx World Hub in Memphis, where Rock Center received complete access to the “SuperHub,” which handles the bulk of the company’s overnight shipping operations.

Vice President of the Memphis World Hub, John Dunavant told Williams, “About 45 packages a second will move through here and when it's all done…we'll have done 500,000 packages.”

For example, a package traveling overnight from New York City to Los Angeles first takes a ride to Newark, where it’s loaded onto a plane to the SuperHub in Memphis. There, the package is taken to a sorting facility, where it’s placed label-side-up on a conveyor belt by a FedEx employee, then scanned, weighed and routed to the next plane departing for L.A.  

It gets a little more complicated on Valentine’s Day with more last minute packages.  Luckily there is a ProFlowers warehouse nearby that allows customers to place orders as late as 11 P.M. CT on February 13, to still arrive by 10 A.M. on Valentine’s Day.

As Tom Hanks’ character explained in the 2000 film Cast Away, the company measures its success not only by revenues earned but by time: on average, 10 million pounds of freight come through the Memphis facility every night, and each package must be sorted and boarded within five hours of arrival in order to reach its destination on time.   That five hour window is represented at the SuperHub by a clock with two competing times, Central Time – the actual time of day – and what FedEx employees refer to as Goal Time, the designated time that all packages must leave the facility to reach their overnight destinations.

In late 2011, FedEx introduced the Boeing 777 to its fleet (more commonly known around the SuperHub as the Triple 7, or as Rock Center staffers call it, The Plane That Delivered Brian), with engines so energy-efficient that its fuel capacity can power the plane to fly more than half way around the world non-stop.

After a night of hard work, Williams and FedEx’s founder and CEO, Fred W. Smith, sat down for an interview in front of one of the company’s beloved Triple 7s named Erica . All FedEx planes are given the name of an employee’s child.

Smith, a former Marine and a veteran of the Vietnam War, outlined the basic idea of FedEx in his senior thesis at Yale University: with computers making businesses more and more efficient, “It was obvious to me that there had to be an entirely new logistics system that could get things from any point to any [other].”

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On its first night of business, the company once known as Federal Express had more planes than packages. But 38 years later, in 2011, FedEx shipped 3 billion packages and took in $39.3 billion in revenue. 

“A lot of people make it work every day,” Smith told Williams. “The main thing is…to make sure everybody is pulling towards the same goal.”

That concept is understood at FedEx’s central command center, where 431 camera feeds of the Memphis SuperHub are displayed across 104 monitors in real time.

“Time is a very big issue; we want to make sure we push it to the limits,” says Flow Control Agent Antonio Vance, who monitors every package that comes through the hub and keeps them all moving smoothly.

But employees like Vance aren’t the only ones monitoring the company’s operations, as FedEx learned the hard way when YouTube viewers around the world were stunned by a shocking video of a FedEx employee throwing a computer monitor over a fence at a gated driveway.

According to Smith, FedEx had tried to deliver the package the day before, and the recipient left instructions to put it over the gate. 

“So that's what he did, in an incredible way,” Smith said, also adding that the reason the video was shocking to so many people was because “it was out of character of FedEx.” 

Smith is the first to acknowledge that slip-ups will occur from time to time. It wasn’t too long ago that he overnighted a personal package to a friend and his own company misplaced it.

“I wasn’t too happy about it,” Smith said. However, “The secret about management is really to make sure that the people that you work with are not afraid to deliver you bad news.  If you start killing the messenger…I can promise you, you won't know anything pretty quickly.”

Despite his obvious displeasure at the snafu, Smith generally remains a popular guy amongst his 300,000 employees worldwide and the 10,000 at the SuperHub: not only because his company is now the largest employer in the Memphis area but because employees and customers alike know that when they forget to mail a Valentine’s Day gift to their mom ahead of time, Smith’s company is there to help.

Editor’s Note: Brian Williams’ full report ‘Absolutely, Positively’  airs Wednesday, February 15 at 9/8c on NBC’s Rock Center.