American Express

THE SCOOP

More than a card

While the consumer public knows American Express for its ubiquitous plastic, the company is much more than its line of credit cards and Roman gladiators that adorn them. The company, which began over 150 years ago as an express mail business set up to serve a rapidly expanding nation, has become a diversified goliath and, after going through several incarnations during its existence, currently operates through four main units: U.S. Card Services, International Card Services, Global Commercial Services, and Global Network & Merchant Services. In 2008, the firm became a bank holding company in order to obtain a loan from the U.S. government's TARP program. American Express repaid that $3.9 billion loan in 2009. In 2010, the firm had a comeback year of sorts, earning $4.1 billion in net income, nearly double what it banked in 2009. Since 2001, American Express has been led by CEO Kenneth Chenault, perhaps the most prominent African-American chief executive in the country (and one of only a handful atop a Fortune 500 company). As of March 2011, the firm had more than 62,000 employees.

The power of plastic and prestige

Since its early years, Amex has switched from express mail to a company with a diverse array of services. Notable among them was Amex's expansion into the money order business in order to compete with the U.S. Post Office in the 1890's. This subsequently led to the creation of the Traveler's Cheque a decade later when J. C. Fargo (brother of founder William Fargo) found that he had enormous difficulty obtaining cash in Europe despite being president of a major company. Traveler's Cheques instituted Amex as an international giant, and their reputation in Europe soared when they became one of the few companies to honor letters of credit held by Americans during the First World War.American Express began its foray into the lucrative credit card industry in the 1950's with the travel-and-entertainment card: the Green Card. The plastic cards (Amex was the first to use the ISO/IEC 7810 plastic for their cards, which has since become the standard) became a massive hit in the booming post-war economy. In an  ingenious move, American Express purposefully charged more than Diners Club, their primary competitors, in a bid to be seen as a higher quality product.

Amex created the Gold Card in 1966 and the Platinum Card in 1984, establishing clearly defined market segments and using higher costs and fees to cater to wealthier, higher profile clients than their competitors, positioning theirs as a 'premium' service. In the end, Amex's history of selling exclusivity, culminating with the ultra-mysterious, ultra-exclusive invitation-only Centurion Card, or Black Card-- paid off; Amex now accounts for nearly a quarter of the total dollar volume of credit card transactions in the U.S., and the credit cards had launched American Express into decades of unprecedented growth.

With the highest-spending cardholders in the industry, the 159-year-old company has decided in recent years to shed major business lines and focus on its strength: the credit card. The Minneapolis-based American Express Financial Advisors-comprising more than 12,000 financial advisors and the Platinum Financial Services group-was spun off in September 2005 as an independent publicly traded company, Ameriprise Financial, listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol AMP. Amex shareholders received all of the common shares of Ameriprise under the terms of the spin-off, with one share of Ameriprise common stock for every five shares of Amex common stock outstanding.

More recently, in early 2008, American Express Bank was sold to Standard Chartered. American Express Bank was Amex's international bank which offered financial services for wealthy individuals and other banks outside the United States.

Back on the express train

The company posted a strong showing in 2010; welcome signs of recovery after the serious blows sustained during the stormy economic climate of 2008. In 2010, American Express reported revenues of $25.612 billion, up from $24.5 billion, with net income, total assets, and total equity also rising. And as the company continues to refine its business model in an improving economic landscape, the outlook for 2011 and beyond is promising.

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American Express


World Financial Center
200 Vesey Street
New York, NY 10285
Phone: (212) 640-2000
www.americanexpress.com

STATS


  • Employer Type: Public
  • Stock Symbol: AXP
  • Stock Exchange: NYSE
  • Chairman and CEO: Kenneth I. Chenault
  • 2010 Employees: 61,000

Major Office Locations

  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • New York, NY
  • Greensboro, NC
  • Salt Lake City, UT

Key Financials

  • 2010 Income: $4,057 million
  • 2010 Revenue: $25,612 million

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