Open the front doors to 889 Jonathan Ave. in Akron, and it’s not what you see that hits you first, it’s what you hear — the noisy chatter of lots of kids.
That’s because 889 is a clubhouse for the Boys and Girls Club of the Western Reserve. Just before 4 o’clock, the kids are still caught in the rush of after-school excitement, not rowdy, but definitely still fueled by their midafternoon snacks. They’re among the more than 2,000 school-age children the club serves each year, most of them at-risk kids from Akron.
At 4 p.m. sharp, the kids will settle in for Power Hour — a mandatory 60 minutes in their after-school programs devoted to homework help. Many days, FedEx Custom Critical CEO Virginia Albanese, the club’s board president, makes the rounds. Albanese, who flirted with teaching before settling on business, has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and two kids at home, so she knows a thing or two about homework help.
I try to branch out where I get my coffee every day, just because different coffee stations have different conversations. There’s always a good discussion at the coffee pot.
In the nearly 27 years that I have worked here, we have never been closed. We are the elite of this business. Customers use us because they know nothing can go wrong.
If you can connect with people, communicate with people, make them understand what we’re all trying to do as a group, people will do amazing things for you.
Communication is key — how we do it, when we do it.
I think you lead by example. Not-for-profits need contributions from these big companies. I like to contribute. I like our organization to contribute money where we also contribute manpower. I just don’t want to be a check.
Anyone who wants to move their career ahead needs to take full ownership of the hard work and dedication that it takes to succeed. While others can give guidance and suggestions, I know that it is up to me to follow through, do my best, look for and ask for opportunities and never quit.
I want to win at everything.
Northeast Ohio is a great place to live. Make the most of it. If you say there’s nothing to do here, you didn’t really want to do anything anyway.
I really don’t think about gender. I just look at myself as a businessperson — a business leader, a community leader, and at home, a mom. Every once in a while, I’ll come across something that reminds me, like a recent golf outing where they held the luncheon before in the men’s locker room, and I think, Should I go in there?
Today, though, Albanese isn’t helping with math problems. She’s showing off the clubhouse and everything in it: the gymnasium and the computer lab (both are buzzing after Power Hour) and the kids’ art, which is everywhere, even on the ceiling tiles.
She can hardly wait to get started.
In what seems like a single breath, Albanese explains why she’s been involved with the club for seven years.
“It’s incredibly important, because these kids need to stay in school, get a good education, get a foundation, learn to be a good citizen, so they can grow up and work for a company like FedEx, right?” That last part sounds more like a foregone conclusion than a question.
That pay-it-forward approach is standard operating procedure for Albanese, and it just might be the key to her success.
Custom Critical is arguably FedEx’s most specialized division.
It takes what FedEx does best — door-to-door expedited shipping — and bumps it up a notch. Some of its clients need time-definite service — shipments tracked and guaranteed within set intervals. Or, “they need high custodial control — we know where the shipment is all the time,” Albanese explains. “Or they need high security, because it’s a high-value product, a one-of-a-kind.”
Think artwork, animals, pharmaceuticals, firearms.
Known for its superior customer service, Custom Critical moves about 700 ultra high-priority shipments daily, coordinated by the 600 employees at the company headquarters in Green. A few years ago, for instance, a hospital patient in California had a biopsy scheduled for Thanksgiving Day. The turnaround from surgery to lab needed to be immediate. The situation was, in every sense, critical. The agent in charge of the shipment stayed in near constant contact with the hospital, then the driver, then the lab. The agent even checked on the shipment during Thanksgiving dinner.
To get that level of commitment from her employees, Albanese is as attentive to them as they are to customers. She says it’s an example of FedEx’s longtime corporate motto: People-Service-Profit.
“If you treat people well, they will want to deliver good service, to do good for you and profits will follow,” she says. In an industry built on minutes and miles, Albanese knows people matter most.
This fall, at a lunch celebrating Custom Critical’s first-quarter achievements, a hairnet-clad Albanese spent 2 1/2 hours giving out condiments and talking with employees at the end of the taco line. She sends handwritten letters celebrating work anniversaries and births, and acknowledging a death in an employee’s family.
Every quarter, she holds “Visits with Virg,” a small group meeting with hourly employees and frontline leadership where she’ll answer anything she can, from “What’s on the cafeteria menu?” to “What’s next for a certain business line?”
That same down-to-earth accessibility defines her leadership at the Boys and Girls Club, says Teresa LeGrair, the club’s president and CEO.
“She doesn’t talk over your head,” LeGrair says. “She makes herself available to make sure that we stay connected, and I get any support that I need from her. I don’t take that lightly. … She’s got a lot of demands on her time.”
Custom Critical stays in constant contact with its drivers. Its Qualcomm systems (imagine a Jetsons-style GPS) send free-form text and video messages to drivers. “I can basically climb into the cab with them,” says Albanese, “because one of the hardest things with a dispersed workforce is that they feel alone. From the time they make a pickup to the time they make a delivery, that can be a lot of windshield time.”
Keeping drivers and other employees feeling completely supported is better for the bottom line. Custom Critical has cultivated a fiercely loyal fleet of about 2,500 drivers, all of whom are independent contractors. The company is consistently recognized as one of the region’s best places to work. The employee turnover rate at Custom Critical’s call center — averaging just 13 percent annually — is half the industry average.
It’s not easy to deliver results like these in an industry built on high-stress logistics. But Albanese is a knowledgeable industry veteran. She started at the company in 1986, when it was Roberts Express, as a customer-service agent. Albanese entered a management trainee program soon after.
By the time FedEx acquired the operation in 1998, Albanese was deep into upper management. In 2007, she became president and CEO of FedEx Custom Critical and the first woman to lead a FedEx company.
Even from the top, Albanese remains hands-on. She keeps her skills up in the operations area, taking customer calls several times during the year. Recently she took a refresher in customer service training.
“I love to get out on the floor and experience what our agents do every day,” she says. “It’s good for me to feel how the revenue comes through the door, and we are exceeding [customer] expectations.”
Albanese emigrated from England to the United States when she was 9. She and her family lived near Canton, where her father worked as an engineer for the Timken Co.
She and her three older siblings had a tough transition. “School, social, the way everyone spoke — everything was new,” she recalls. She was moved ahead one grade in school to adjust for the difference in educational systems, setting that pattern of quick ascension that has defined her career.
Playing sports also helped ease the transition. Soccer was a logical entry point, since she had played in England with her brother. But she added softball, swimming and tennis — “my whole family grew up with a racquet in hand.” Competition became a means for assimilation.
“Competitive sports were introduced early and encouraged,” Albanese says. “We were taught to win and lose with grace.” She still prefers to win.
Music was also a big part of her childhood. Albanese remembers a family soundtrack packed with classic rock — a “good dose of Pink Floyd, Bob Seger, James Taylor, and Simon and Garfunkel.” In eighth grade, Albanese decided she wanted to play the drums, and after a year of private lessons, she joined the snare drum line in high school. By senior year, she was president of the band.
Her business career also began in high school, in Junior Achievement. With the help of the club’s corporate sponsors, Canton’s White Engines, Albanese practiced running a company, learning everything from producing goods and quality control to making payroll and the importance of a good sales and marketing team.
“We ran a good company, made a profit each year and earned a few awards along the way,” she says. Sounds familiar.
Albanese also learned about community involvement early. Her mother continuously emphasized “how one should live life as a community citizen.” As a 7-year-old in England, Albanese would visit a school for disabled kids at the end of her street during field days to help out. Even though the girls were little, they knew they were not there to win, but they “had a blast helping out” anyway.
As a high school student, Albanese made holiday deliveries with her mother for the Salvation Army. Her mother, the youngest of nine kids, was grateful to the Salvation Army for helping her family during World War II. Albanese remembers the grim conditions of a home she delivered to — plastic on the door, no furniture and no way to cook anything. “On that day, I realized the blessing that our family had,” she says, “and how much we needed to help those who were less fortunate.”
Albanese puts a civic spin on FedEx’s People-Service-Profit motto. Between a robust corporate volunteer program and her own civic engagements, Albanese pushes for Custom Critical and its employees to make deep personal investments in the community.
She and her human resources team set yearly volunteering goals, calculating target hours per employee. Her expectations are realistic — not everyone will be able to hit the number. But she sees volunteering as an important tool for the community and company, so she pushes every opportunity she can.
“I believe our company gets back way more than we give when we do our volunteer week, especially when we go out as a group,” she explains. Last spring, she hung drywall at a Habitat for Humanity project with several employees, laughing and bonding over shared personal experiences such as the challenges of parenting teens. The payoff goes beyond simply filling a civic commitment.
“Who doesn’t want to work for a company that really prides itself on giving back to the community?” she says. “People feel like, Hey, I work for a nice company!”
Albanese complements Custom Critical employees’ volunteer work with her own civic involvement. On top of her work at the Boys and Girls Club, Albanese is a trustee for the Greater Akron Chamber, Akron Children’s Hospital and Akron Community Foundation. Maybe that’s a touch fewer board affiliations than some of her peers, but Albanese is purposeful, even picky, about where she spends her time.
Her criteria are simple but stringent. It has to be something that she “can really get behind and put hours into.” It has to be good for Akron, now and in the future.
Dan Colantone, president and CEO of the Greater Akron Chamber, says her ability to focus on priorities and outcomes was instrumental to her leadership. “In a challenging economic time, she helped us focus on the right priorities within an aggressive strategic plan.”
In the boardroom at the Boys and Girls Club, Albanese leans back in her chair and talks about the impact of the work she does here. It’s true she works mostly behind the scenes. Aside from pitching in at Power Hour and her gift wrapping acumen at the annual holiday event, most of what Albanese does has to do with fundraising and offering Custom Critical’s financial resources and some of its employees for volunteer help.
She believes she shows the kids at the club what’s possible for them. They recently took a field trip to the Custom Critical headquarters. The kids saw everything: call center, cafeteria, information technology and the perennial elementary school favorite — trucks.
When the tour reached the boardroom, one little boy headed straight for Albanese’s chair and made himself comfortable. “This is going to be my chair someday,” he said.
To Albanese, there is no better motivation.
She joins her family for her first volunteer work. “My mother was a role model for us throughout our lives by emphasizing the practice of giving back to those less fortunate or to the community in which we live. I have done the same with my
Nine-year-old Albanese and her family move to Canton from Northampton, England, when her father, an engineer, joins Timken Co.
She begins a four-summer stint at Timken working in accounting and employee benefits.
Albanese graduates from Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and begins substitute teaching in the Akron Public Schools.
Decides she’s better suited for business and joins Roberts Express call center as a part-time customer service agent. Within a few months, Albanese enters the management trainee program.
While working in the training department at Roberts Express, she meets her husband, a new training hire, Bill Albanese.
She earns an executive MBA in international business from Kent State.
FedEx acquires Caliber System, the parent company of Roberts Express; Albanese becomes managing director of operations, safety and contract sourcing.
Roberts Express becomes FedEx Custom Critical.
Boys and Girls Club of the Western Reserve builds the Arlington Clubhouse on Jonathan Avenue. Albanese insists the kids get a gym on the premises. “We need to make sure that these kids don’t think they’re coming back to school.”
After 20 years at the company, Albanese moves into the driver’s seat as its first female president and CEO, the only female CEO in the FedEx family.
Albanese becomes the first woman to lead the board at the Greater Akron Chamber in the organization’s 106-year history. “I want people to think of me as a professional and somebody who is a good leader and can deliver results.”
Albanese becomes one of 35 women around the world recognized as an International Women’s Forum Fellow.
She is appointed by Gov. John Kasich to return to her alma mater as a member of Kent State’s board of trustees. She’ll serve until 2022.