How Matthew Thornton’s remarkable rise from package handler to EVP at FedEx inspired diversity in corporate America

BY Preta Peace Namasaba September 2, 2023 11:35 PM EDT
Matthew Thornton, III
Matthew Thornton, III. Photo credit: Crown Castle

In recent years, numerous global corporations have faced criticism for their inadequate commitment to diversity within their senior management ranks. However, FedEx Corporation stands out as a trailblazer in championing diversity. In 2017, the company had several African-American executives in prominent roles, and one notable figure among them was Matthew Thornton III.

Recognized on Black Enterprise‘s 2017 list of the Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America, Thornton’s journey with FedEx began in 1978 when he joined as a package handler while still a college student at the University of Memphis. Over the years, he steadily climbed the corporate ladder, assuming various management positions. His exceptional dedication and contributions led to his appointment as Senior Vice President of Air, Ground, and Freight Services, as well as Senior Vice President of U.S. Operations.

Thornton’s exemplary work ethic earned him a promotion to the role of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of FedEx Freight. In this capacity, he oversaw the day-to-day operations and strategic direction of FedEx’s $8 billion revenue freight business, providing guidance to 45,000 employees across 380 service centers.

Prior to this role, Thornton held the position of Senior Vice President of U.S. Operations at FedEx Express, where he managed over 50,000 employees responsible for the daily pickup and delivery operations, as well as Express Retail operations at 650 express facilities, as reported by Globe Newswire.

During Thornton’s tenure in these significant roles, FedEx had a notable presence of African-American executives at the senior level. This is particularly significant in light of statistics that reveal a significant disparity in African-American representation in professional and senior leadership roles across corporate America. In 2021, the Society for Human Resource Management reported that although African Americans constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up only 8 percent of professional roles, with a mere 3.2 percent holding senior leadership positions and less than 1 percent occupying Fortune 500 CEO roles. Many attribute this underrepresentation to systemic racism within corporate structures.

A recent survey conducted by McKinsey & Company highlighted disparities faced by African Americans, including higher unemployment rates, lower wages, and limited job prospects compared to other ethnicities. In industries where African-American workers are prevalent, they often earn less than $30,000 in comparison to their colleagues.

Therefore, Matthew Thornton III’s prominent role within FedEx served as a source of inspiration for many African-American employees. His retirement in November 2019, followed by his appointment to the Board of Directors of Sherwin-Williams Company, solidified his status as an icon in driving diversity and inclusion efforts within corporations. His extensive experience in global operations greatly contributed to his success in his role at FedEx Freight, a fact acknowledged by FedEx itself.