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Arden Wray/The Globe and Mail

Two decisions loom large in the history of Lisa Lisson. One, which Lisson calls the defining choice of her life, came in 2007, when a heart attack felled her 38-year-old husband, Pat, and left him in a coma with barely a flicker of brain activity. Against the advice of doctors, she kept him alive for two years in the hope of a recovery that would never come. The other decision, which shaped the course of her career, was far happier. It occurrred when Lisson, fresh out of university, decided to pursue a marketing job at FedEx Canada. Twenty-eight years later, with Lisson now having notched a decade as president of the global shipping company’s Canadian subsidiary (1), she finds herself riding a wave of e-commerce-driven growth. What does it mean for FedEx’s profits or position in the Canadian market? That’s hard to know.

This has been a strange and challenging year, but a good one for package carriers. I’ve seen StatsCan numbers that say e-commerce sales have more than doubled this year over last. How much has your business increased?

We don’t release any Canadian information, because we roll up to the United States. But what I can tell you is that e-commerce has obviously exploded. As we are approaching this holiday season, online shopping and shipping volumes are expected to break records and beat last year’s volumes several times over. I’ll give you some trends south of the border. Pre-COVID, FedEx projected the U.S. domestic market would hit 100 million packages per day by calendar year 2026. But the market now is expected to hit that mark three years sooner, by 2023. And as much as 96 per cent of this growth is expected to come from e-commerce. (2) We are hiring quite a lot of employees right now to help with volume growth.

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How many?

Our goal is to hire around 2,000 people in Canada to help with the peak season. (3) We’ve gone from 8,000 to 10,000 employees across Canada.

Are these temporary employees?

No, they’re actually not, Trevor. We do have a small handful of temporary, but the vast majority are employees that we know we are going to need. Prior to e-commerce, January was a relatively slow month for us. Now, with online shopping, you’re going to have all these people doing returns. So it really extends what we call our peak holiday shipping timeframe.

You’re one of the few industries that benefits from both sides of a failed transaction.

You’re absolutely correct. When people order online and need to return something, they have to ship it back. So we do benefit from returns.

I have read that, in the midst of this e-commerce explosion, carriers like FedEx have “almost unlimited pricing power.” What are you doing to take advantage of this moment?

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We have put in peak surcharges over the holiday timeframe, and that’s because our costs dramatically increase. We will have some customers that, on average, maybe ship 2,000 pieces a day. During the peak holiday time, shipping can ramp up to 14,000 pieces a day. So we put in a peak surcharge to help us manage the costs we incur, to help our customers move those large peak volumes in a very condensed amount of time.

Last year, FedEx ended its largest Amazon contracts, and I assume that was true for Canada, as well?

Yes, we no longer do business with Amazon here in Canada.

Can you tell me why?

No, I can’t. I don’t get into why we do and do not do business with customers.

At the same time they dropped Amazon, FedEx in the U.S.—I assume in Canada, as well—decided to go “all in on e-commerce.” But one of the biggest forces behind e-commerce is Shopify. Shopify doesn’t use FedEx. So who do you ship for?

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There’s a lot of different shipping applications. Some of them we partner with, and some we don’t. Walmart’s a customer of ours, for example. And they are building up their e-commerce presence.

You’ve been president for 10 years. I’m sure a lot has changed. How is the shipping world different?

Ten years ago, if someone wanted to connect with FedEx, they’d have to pick up the phone. There was no online application. We had no social presence, no apps. We didn’t have any of the business we talked about—people ordering online and returns. People would go into a bricks-and-mortar store. They would buy whatever they needed, and if they had to return it, they’d go and return it. This whole industry didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Besides the apps you mentioned, how is FedEx employing new technology to compete?

One of the things we are piloting right now in the U.S. is a device called Roxo, which is basically a unit that will allow us to deliver, say, from a pharmacy within a certain radius right to the door. It’s a very small, box type of robot. It’s boxy because we’ve got to be able to put packages inside of it. The wheels it uses are similar to what you find on some very high-tech devices that need to work off-terrain.

What else are you doing?

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We’re also piloting some autonomous tugs in our hub. (4) We’re looking at robotics. Here in Mississauga, we just built a state-of-the-art e-commerce sorting system. Once a package enters the system, it will not touch a human being until it goes out for delivery.

I want to shift now. Thirteen years ago, in 2007, you and your family suffered a great tragedy. You have my deep condolences.

Thank you.

Three years ago you came out with a book about that experience. (5) What was behind that decision?

I kept my husband in a vegetative state for two years waiting for a miracle that wasn’t meant to be, trying everything I could to wake up his brain. Toward the end of those two years, he was becoming very ill, and I had to let him go. A year after that, I was very fortunate to get this position of president, and The Globe and Mail interviewed me. The reporter asked, “Did anything happen on your rise to this position?” I said to him, “How much time do you have?” And I ended up telling him the whole story. A lot of women’s groups started reaching out to me to share my story, and through their encouragement, I started considering writing a book. Also, as my kids were getting older, they started asking questions. So I thought, You know what? I’m going to document this journey. I didn’t realize how therapeutic writing the book would be.

Much of the book covers your rise at FedEx, and you spend a lot of time on how you honed and adjusted your behaviour over the years in order to succeed. Why did you feel the need to do that?

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One of the things I’ve learned through all my mentors is that real leaders are authentic. You take the leadership styles you admire, you take the ones you don’t, and then you form a style that’s authentic to you. Part of my style is that I love connecting with people on a personal level. But earlier on in my career, I didn’t see a lot of men doing that, so I felt maybe I shouldn’t. And I realized I would be better served just being my authentic self. Because people can tell when you’re not being natural.

And yet you talk in detail about how, for example, you learned to hide your feelings: “I trained like a soldier. I studied techniques to control my emotions. I taught myself to develop a poker face.”

Earlier on in my career, I would watch some female leaders in the boardroom get extremely emotional. And it would impact their ability to communicate effectively. You can’t get emotional in the boardroom. You can’t take things so personally, because it’s not personal—you’re trying to get the best decision. I am an emotional person. And so if someone was trying to ruffle my feathers, I had to tell myself, ‘Lookit, don’t take this personally. It’s business. Keep your emotions intact.’ I’ve been in some meetings where a man would just put his arm on the table and pound, pound. Well, that’s not appropriate. Everyone has moments when they’re vulnerable. But it shouldn’t be the norm.

You also talk about the fact that shipping is an overwhelmingly male industry. But as you rose up at FedEx, you apparently didn’t encounter a single instance of sexism. Is that true?

That is absolutely correct. I did not. Our founder, Fred Smith, believed in the importance of culture before strategy. So when he created our company, he said we had to treat our people with the utmost trust and respect, because they are the most important asset. And he has made sure the culture at FedEx is full of diversity, that it’s full of inclusion.

You mention diversity. There are 12 people on the board. Four of them are women. Is that enough?

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You know, I personally believe in equality for women and making sure we get more and more women on boards, more and more women in the C-suite. But I also believe it shouldn’t just be about checking the box. So I’m very proud that FedEx has four women, because you look at some boards and you probably won’t even find one.

You’ve been with FedEx for 28 years. Do you ever worry that your perspective is limited by never having worked for another company?

No, and here’s one of the many reasons why I love this job. We can pretty much do business with any industry and any company. I get to learn about a lot of different companies through best practices with our customers. So I don’t really feel that I am missing out.

Arden Wray/The Globe and Mail

In your book, you talk about yourself as a rule follower: “I can’t break even the simplest rule.” How do you adjust to changing circumstances?

I think what I meant by “rules” is doing what’s right in your core. I would wait in line at the movie theatre and constantly see people try to butt in and work their way up. I can’t do that. With respect to business—if I say to my IT team, “Lookit, we need to come up with a solution. I need out-of-the-box thinking. I know we’re probably supposed to wait to see if Memphis (6) develops this application, but let’s see what we can do here locally.” You have to do some of that in order to create innovation or move quicker. I’m a rule follower when it comes to my ethics.

You also say that you’re very goal-focused. What’s your big goal now?

Pre-COVID, my goal was to run another division of FedEx. But that’s changed. I’ve got four kids here in Canada. If I was working in the U.S. right now, I wouldn’t be able to see them because of the quarantine. One of the things I have moved up on my goal list is to get onto a corporate board in Canada. I think the pandemic has caused us all to pause and reflect on our goals for the foreseeable future.

1. Lisson was the first woman and the first Canadian to be appointed president of FedEx Canada.

2. As of September, FedEx Canada’s residential volume (representing almost half of all its deliveries in Canada) had increased almost 130% over the previous year.

3. FedEx later clarified to say that the company has added more than 2,500 employees in Canada since the start of the summer.

4. “Tugs” are robotic delivery systems that help move cargo offloaded from planes to input locations where the freight is sorted. FedEx has piloted autonomous tugs at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

5. Resilience: Navigating Life, Loss and the Road to Success was ghost-written by journalist and author Wendy Dennis, and published by ECW in 2017.

6. Memphis, Tenn., is the home of FedEx’s corporate headquarters.

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