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Fred Smith, Leadership Guru, Dies at 91

Former business executive known for mentoring top evangelicals.

Fred Smith, for decades a behind-the-scenes adviser to ministry leaders, a mentor to business executives, and a leadership expert, died Friday, August 17. Smith had been hospitalized on many times over the last several years due to complications from dialysis. Smith's fourth book, Breakfast with Fred, is scheduled to be released next month.

He was a master of nuance, said Marshall Shelley, editor of Leadership Journal, where Smith served as a consulting editor and columnist. His insight in business and leadership provided guidance for pastors and ministries for 50 years.

In the mid-1970s, Smith was chairman of the board of Youth for Christ. He was also active in leadership at Christianity Today International. Through his friendship with Maxey Jarman, who was president of Genesco, the largest apparel company in the world at the time, Smith was asked to help the financially struggling Christianity Today. His leadership continued for 25 years as he served on the board of Christianity Today International. Smith also served on the boards of Bill Glass Evangelistic Ministries, Turner Foundation, Billy Graham Crusade Committee (Cincinnati, Ohio), RREACH International, and other Christian and business organizations.

A pastor's son

Smith's expertise as a business leader made him a popular speaker, and his columns and interviews in Leadership were among the most popular in the magazine. He was president of his own food packaging company, a consultant to Mobil and Caterpillar, and vice president of operations at Gruen Watch, a division of Genesco.

Smith credited much of his success in speaking, business, and leadership to his upbringing. Smith was the son of a Southern Baptist pastor, and lived in several Southern states before settling in Nashville in the 1930s with his wife, Mary Alice. Smith said he learned the value of organization from his mother, who fed a seven-member family on the $125 per month his father earned. Living in a minister's family, Smith also inherited his father's admiration for integrity.

Newly married and twenty years old, Smith sought a job in a personnel department, and he decided to meet the president of the one company in Nashville that might have such a job opening. Smith waited at the gas station where Maxey Jarman, president of General Shoe, regularly bought gas. It was the mid-1930s, and Jarman had built his shoe company from 75 employees to 5,000. Smith introduced himself after Jarman pulled into the station. "He probably thought it was very strange," Smith later said.

Smith wasn't offered a job. But when he learned where Jarman taught Sunday school, Smith began attending. Eventually, in 1941, Jarman invited Smith for a Coke at the drug store. "That night," Smith later wrote, "I told Mary Alice I thought he would offer me a job, and no matter what he offered, I was going to take it because he was a man I wanted to be associated with. I sensed then I wanted to be with him for life."

Leading with Integrity

For the next 43 years, Smith wrote down his observations as he watched Jarman build General Shoe into Genesco. Smith believed gifts were to be shared with others. "Dad taught all of us that whenever you have knowledge that could help other people, you're supposed to share it," Smith wrote in Learning to Lead. Writing for pastors in Leadership journal and mentoring individuals allowed Smith to build a legacy that continues to benefit the church. "He stretched people" were the words Smith said he wanted on his tombstone.

Jack Modesett spent more than 40 years under Smith's mentorship. Modesett, president of Cornerstone Energy and former chairman of the board at Christianity Today International, said Smith was able to recognize people's strengths and develop them, while also providing spiritual guidance. Once, after Modesett had undergone a personal revival, he told Smith he was going to use his business position to persuade others of his faith. Smith sent Modesett a plaque saying, "Modesett comes out for God!" That was the right mixture of humor and admonishment to convict him of his spiritual pride, Modesett said. "He couldn't have made the point any more subtly or stuck the needle in any more deeply."

Whenever Smith spoke to audiences, Modesett said, he spoke from the Bible. "One of the great needs of the church today is to be called back to the basics of their belief," said Modesett. "Fred was one of the clarion voices in his day."

Smith's humor was legendary. Modesett said that during a stay in the hospital in 2004, Smith's wife of 67 years, Mary Alice, asked if he would write to her from heaven. "You'd have to pay the postage," he replied. Modesett said, "He was always making some wisecrack joke because he saw that the Good News of the gospel is so good that underlying and overarching the tragedy of life is great joy." Mary Alice died a few months later.

Staying helpful

For more than 60 years, until he was nearly 90, Smith spoke to audiences, sometimes via phone from the hospital, hosting group conversations. His health problems posed an obstacle to his ongoing mentoring, but Smith began inviting people to what he called Dialysis University three or four times per week during his dialysis treatments.

"There used to be a time when time and money were scarcer, and I had to conserve them. Energy is scarce right now, so I look to conserve as much as I can," Smith told his friend and apprentice Ramesh Richard, founder and president of RREACH, an evangelism ministry.

Smith was known for discerning the heart of each problem presented to him. He liked to tell the story of a logger who needed to fix a log jam. Rather than knocking every log out until reaching the right one, Smith said a good logger would spot the key log, knock it out, and let the stream do the rest. He did not tolerate fuzzy thinking, said Harold Myra, former CEO of Christianity Today International. In 1975, Smith recruited Myra to head up the company.

Smith was told he had 18 months to live 13 years ago. "He's been living on borrowed time," Myra said, "and I've seen him grow. He's been on his back in the hospital, but he's still on the phone, talking to people."

"One of his great gifts," Modesett said of Smith, "is engaging in conversation, whether it's one person or a thousand people." In January 2003, Smith began hosting conversations online. At BreakfastwithFred.com, Smith led discussion forums and wrote columns. Playing off his many breakfast meetings with friends, Smith continued to stretch people.

"He could tell the truth in a way that you could hear it; he could challenge, he could offer criticism with wit and humor, and you would welcome it," said Harold B. Smith, CEO of Christianity Today International "Frankly, it would be unwise not to listen to Fred."

Smith is survived by three children, six grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.

Related Elsewhere:

More on Fred Smith is available at BreakfastWithFred.com

In 2005, Leadership Journal published an article by Smith on what he had learned from the questions he'd been asked.

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