Frederick Smith was born in Marks, Mississippi, the son of James Frederick "Fred" Smith, the founder of the Toddle House restaurant chain and the Smith Motor Coach Company (renamed the Dixie Greyhound Lines after The Greyhound Corporation bought a controlling interest in 1931). The elder Smith died when his son was only 4, and the boy was raised by his mother and uncles.
Smith was crippled by bone disease as a small boy but regained his health by age 10.
He attended elementary school at Presbyterian Day School in Memphis and high school at Memphis University School, and became an amateur pilot as a teen.
In 1962, Smith entered Yale University. While attending Yale, he wrote a paper for an economics class, outlining overnight delivery service, on which he received a “C”.
Additionally, Smith became a member and eventually the president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity and the Skull and Bones secret society. He received his bachelor's degree in economics in 1966. In his college years, he was a friend and DKE fraternity brother of future U.S. president George W. Bush. Smith was also friends with future U.S. Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry; the two shared an enthusiasm for aviation and were flying partners.
After graduation, Smith was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving for three years (from 1966 to 1969) as a platoon leader and a forward air controller (FAC), flying in the back seat of the OV-10.
He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1969 with the rank of captain, having received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts.
In 1970, Smith purchased the controlling interest in an aircraft maintenance company, Ark Aviation Sales, and by 1971 turned its focus to trading used jets. On June 18, 1971, Smith founded Federal Express with his $4 million inheritance (approximately $23 million in 2013 dollars ) and raised $91 million (approximately $525 million in 2013 dollars) in venture capital. In 1973, the company began offering service to 25 cities, and it began with small packages and documents and a fleet of 14 Falcon 20 (DA-20) jets. His focus was on developing an integrated air-ground system. Smith developed FedEx on the business idea of a shipment version of a bank clearing house where one bank clearing house was located in the middle of the representative banks and all their representatives would be sent to the central location to exchange materials.
In the early days of FedEx, Smith had to go to great lengths to keep the company afloat. In one instance, after a crucial business loan was denied, he took the company's last $5,000 to Las Vegas and won $27,000 gambling on blackjack to cover the company's $24,000 fuel bill. It kept FedEx alive for one more week.
In 2003 Smith, along with Robert Rothman and Dwight Schar, purchased a minority share of the Washington Football Team, an American football franchise belonging to the National Football League. The three owned a total of 40% of the team until 2021, when they sold their stake to majority owner Dan Snyder following discontentment with Snyder. Smith also owns or co-owns several other entertainment companies, such as Alcon Entertainment.
In 2000, Smith made an appearance as himself in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, when Tom's character is welcomed back, which was filmed on location at FedEx's home facilities in Memphis, Tennessee. A DKE Fraternity Brother of George W. Bush while at Yale, after Bush's 2000 election, there was some speculation that Smith might be appointed to the Bush Cabinet as Defense Secretary. While Smith was Bush's first choice for the position, he declined for medical reasons — Donald Rumsfeld was named instead. Although Smith was friends with both 2004 major candidates, John Kerry and George W. Bush, Smith chose to endorse Bush's re-election in 2004. When Bush decided to replace Rumsfeld, Smith was offered the position again, but he declined in order to spend time with his terminally ill daughter.
Smith was a supporter of Senator John McCain's 2008 Presidential bid, and had been named McCain's National Co-Chairman of his campaign committee.
Smith was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame and also awarded the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement in 1998. He was inducted into the SMEI Sales & Marketing Hall of Fame in 2000. His other awards include "CEO of the Year 2004" by Chief Executive Magazine and the 2008 Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership, presented by the Kellogg School of Management on May 29, 2008. He was also awarded the 2008 Bower Award for Business Leadership from The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the 2011 recipient of the Tony Jannus Award for distinguished contributions to commercial aviation.
In March 2014, Fortune Magazine ranked him 26th among the list of "World's 50 Greatest Leaders."