John Fuller, senior manager with FedEx, says the biggest challenge of his job was his building. But that changed during the last week of October when he moved his operation from a 100,000-square-foot warehouse on Twin Rivers Drive in East Windsor to a new 300,000-square-foot fully automated warehouse in Dayton.

“Everything was done by hand. There was human error,” Fuller says of the ways things went at the old warehouse. Now a system of conveyor belts moves each incoming package to the exact spot it needs to be, placing it in a bin where it will wait — but only for a short time — to catch a ride on the proper outgoing truck.

“A tunnel scanner scans all six sides of a package and finds its bar code,” says Fuller. “There is no human error. Before we would send packages to the wrong place.” Not often, of course, but sometimes. Now that is no longer possible. The scanners determine the size and weight of each incoming package, determine who shipped it, and where it is going. The bar code also tells the scanner if a particular package has companion packages — maybe three birthday presents from grandma, all to be delivered to the same child — and the packages are then grouped together.

“As the packages go down the length of the conveyor belt, they are gently pushed off at the right door,” says Fuller. No human has to remember just what door leads to which truck, he adds. Correctly placed, the package “goes down a long chute.” At the end of the chute is a human being who, relieved of the chore of remembering what goes where, needs to merely pick up the package and load it onto an outgoing delivery truck.

On an average day 40,000 to 50,000 packages will pass through the new Dayton facility. “We don’t have a slow season,” says Fuller. While the volume of more pricey express deliveries may be down in a slowing economy, Fuller and his co-workers deal only with ground delivery, and business remains strong. Right now he is gearing up for the Grand Prixe of the ground delivery year — the Christmas rush.

“It’s crazy for the month of December,” says Fuller, whose workforce swells by one third for the holiday season.

The new, larger FedEx facility — is not really a warehouse, says Fuller, because packages move in and out in the same day. “People work for four hours and then leave,” he says. “It’s really a sortation center.”

The center, which moved “because of a tremendous increase in volume,” will employ more people not just for the holidays, but year round. At full staffing levels, there will be up to 200 part-time workers, who unload trucks from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and load trucks from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. There are also 40 full-time managers and about 75 drivers.

The drivers are independent contractors who own their routes. “In the beginning, 20 years ago, FedEx gave the routes away,” says Fuller. “Now the people who own the routes can sell them for anything they want, and they do sell for a substantial amount of money.” (Routes now posted for sale on the Internet include one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for $30,000, one in Stamford, Connecticut, for $63,000, and one in Queens for $130,000.)

Some route owners work the routes themselves, while others own multiple routes and hire drivers to work them. “One guy has eight routes and employs 13 people,” Fuller says. The trucks are loaded up and ready to go by 7 a.m., but each route owner can decide when he wants to start making his deliveries. “They don’t have to punch a clock,” he says.

Drivers, who must wear FedEx uniforms, can make more as route owners than they could as hourly workers, says Fuller, who points out that those who own multiple routes make considerably more than their hourly counterparts at other delivery services.

FedEx drivers are free to some extent from the iron control that UPS famously exerts over its well-paid drivers — insisting, for example, on a precise 12-step process for delivering every package, but they must follow many rules all the same. There are a number of ongoing lawsuits in which drivers are claiming that these rules mean that they are, in fact, not really independent contractors, but rather that they are employees. On October 20 a judge in California ruled in favor of a group of drivers and ordered FedEx to pay them for expenses, such as vehicle maintenance, that an employer would ordinarily cover.

Whatever courts decide on their classification under the law, Fuller says that his drivers are efficient because they have an excellent incentive. “The more packages, the more money,” is how he puts it.

The Fedex drivers working at the new Dayton facility pick up packages both from businesses and from homes. Some come in one at a time, while others are delivered to the 40-foot high facility on pallets. All come in from a pretty tight radius. Fuller’s facility collects packages only from towns within about a one hour drive. “We go the the Jersey Shore and toward Pennsylvania,” he says. “This is about as far north as we go.”

Fuller himself travels north to get home at night. A resident of Westfield, the Ursinus graduate (Class of 1981), has been in the transportation logistics business for most of his career. He studied economics in college, but didn’t venture into banking or high finance. He chose his career, he says, “because it seemed to me that there would always be a need for transportation. It seemed secure.”

FedEx, 63 Stults Road, Dayton 08810; 609-860-6800; fax, 609-866-6810. John Fuller, manager.

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