If you’ve ever used technology to ship a package with FedEx, chances are you’ve used one of Donald Comer’s products.
In his current position as director of digital access marketing at FedEx Services, Comer (‘82) and his staff of 33 spend a lot of time understanding the needs and preferences of their customers and how each client wants to interact with FedEx through technology, something Comer says 90 percent of FedEx customers around the world do each day.
Retail is steadily moving toward online shipping, and one of the biggest challenges Comer faces is deciding how to provide the right level of technology to support this shift.
In a nutshell, he develops the systems customers use to access and ship though FedEx. He studies customer behaviors and needs, and then he tweaks and refines FedEx systems to create a more efficient customer experience. Comer says every decision works toward a single goal.
“One of the greatest stories I love is when (President) John F. Kennedy walked through NASA, and he talked to the guy who was sweeping the floor, and he asked him what was his job, and he said, ‘My job is to put a man on the moon.’ Well, everybody’s job at FedEx is to put a package on the belt. … So, my job is to put a package on the belt, to generate incremental revenue – incremental volume – and to do it profitably,” he said.
One way to accomplish this goal is to improve the technology experience within the FedEx Office. To faciliate this, Comer and his team created a product called FedEx Ship&Get – a locker where customers can pick up or drop off packages at their convenience. Available 24/7, the self-service lockers are currently being tested in the Memphis and Dallas markets. Not only is the locker system convenient for customers, it also helps reduce the most expensive part of the FedEx delivery cycle: residential delivery.
As a young man growing up in rural West Tennessee, Comer never imagined he would one day be an executive with one of the world’s largest express delivery companies.
“I grew up in a very rural part of Jackson. … Neither of my parents went to college, so they couldn’t offer a lot of counsel and guidance on that,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate along the way to have met people who could influence and help me to synthesize some of the opportunities.”
And synthesize he has. Nearly 40 years after graduating as high school valedictorian, Comer has served executive roles with two Fortune 500 companies and holds two degrees – a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a major in accounting from UT Martin and a Master of Business Administration with a major in strategic management from the University of Memphis.
Comer began his college career at UT Martin in the fall of 1978 and never looked back. He joined the Student Government Association, pledged the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, sang in the collegiate choir, was part of the Black Student Association and even served as a Peer Enabling Program Leader.
Harold Conner, assistant dean of students during Comer’s time at UT Martin, had possibly the largest influence on Comer’s future.
“It’s interesting now when I look back on the holistic set of experiences that I got from the University of Tennessee at Martin. It wasn’t like I made decisions about school in ways that I would now (by) looking for very specific disciplines – expertise in areas that I would want to ultimately be in – but the holistic set of experiences have really served me well in terms of personal growth, professional growth and just really being able to come into my own over time,” he said.
Holiday Inn, headquartered in Memphis at the time, came to interview students on campus during Comer’s senior year at UT Martin. He met a recruiter who took an interest in him and took him to the Holiday Inn worldwide headquarters at the Commerce Center complex in Memphis. Comer remembers pulling up to the building, which had flags from every country flying outside.
From that moment, he knew this was where he wanted to work. However, life had other plans. The job was given to another UT Martin graduate, and Comer instead went to work at a small accounting firm.
Despite the setback, he didn’t lose sight of his goal. Instead, he sent his resume to the Holiday Inn recruiter every month for 10 months. His persistence paid off, and he was ultimately hired for the position he wanted.
“I’m at a point now (where) I look back on all those things and think about how impactful it was to have a sponsor. I don’t think I realized it at that time, but that individual who recruited me to Holiday Inn and introduced me to things in terms of job opportunities was probably one of my first sponsors,” he said.
Comer began working at Holiday Inn in 1983 and remained there for four years before following a new opportunity in 1987. International Paper, a leading global producer of pulp and paper products, was relocating its headquarters from New York City to Memphis. A friend at International Paper told Comer about an opening in the company, and he was quickly hired as a senior accountant.
“At every opportunity, there was somebody helping, pulling, sponsoring (me). … I’ve really come to appreciate the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, ‘cause we’re all going to make some mistakes,” he said. “So it’s always wonderful to have somebody there at the table who’s saying, ‘Yeah, he made that mistake this time, but let me tell you about the other nine times when he knocked it out of the park.’ So, that’s really what’s been a very key element of whatever success I’ve had is being able to earn respect and gain somebody who’s willing to expend some amount of their personal equity to give me an opportunity that I might not have otherwise had.”
Because of this, Comer has spent most of his life trying to do the same for others.
“It’s very important for me to coach, mentor and provide some level of sponsorship to those whose story is a little different – and I look now at how lucky and how fortunate I was and I don’t think that kind of luck exists today,” he said. “You have to be very intentional and deliberate to really move because competition as a whole is a lot stiffer than it was … when I came about.”
Comer stayed with International Paper for two years before finally landing with FedEx. He has held nine positions during 28 years with the company and now “bleeds purple.”
Outside of work, Comer sits on the national board of directors for the National Black MBA Association, an organization dedicated to developing partnerships that create intellectual and economic wealth in the black community.
Additionally, Comer works with business students at the University of Alabama through FedEx and was recently asked to sit on the diversity committee for their school of business. He also works with Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Wake Forest University and LeMoyne–Owen College in Memphis.
“To think (about) the number of countries that I’ve traveled to, the number of opportunities that I’ve had – I’ve met a slew of celebrities over time just through relationships through FedEx and just through other organizational opportunities. … It’s been a really good life,” said Comer.