The story of American Express is a fascinating one, filled with interesting and sometimes quirky characters who through a combination of brains, perseverance and luck shaped the company's development during the past century and a half.
The express company that forwarded freight and valuables evolved into a company that created and sold financial products like money orders and travelers cheques. Following an era of international expansion, the company became an entity perhaps best known for its charge card. Today, American Express is a global payments company.
The attributes that today are the hallmarks of the American Express brand trust, integrity, security, quality, customer service all have their roots in this compelling story. In this history, as well, are the genesis and development of the company's aspiration to become the world's most respected service brand.
Established in 1850 in New York, American Express Company was among the first and most successful express delivery businesses to arise during the rapid westward expansion of the United States. The U.S. Postal Service at the time was slow, expensive and nonexistent in many areas. Nothing larger than a letter-sized envelope could be sent by mail, and certainly nothing valuable, as a fair number of deliveries were lost or stolen enroute.
The express companies served as a lifeline to the growing nation. Intrepid expressmen, typically on horseback or driving stagecoaches, traversed from the eastern cities to the western frontier, transporting correspondence, parcels, freight, gold and currency, among countless other goods. American Express quickly earned a reputation as the best in the fledgling industry - the company that delivered, literally.
In 1882, American Express launched the money order business, which proved an almost instant success. The company introduced the world's first travelers cheque in 1891 and within ten years was selling more than $6 million in cheques annually.
In the course of building the money order and travelers cheque businesses, the company established correspondent banking relationships with a number of European banks that accepted and encashed the products. As a result, the American Express name became increasingly visible throughout Europe. In 1895, the company established its first European office, in Paris, at 6, rue Halévy, followed by the 1896 opening of an office at 3 Waterloo Place in London. By 1910, American Express had expanded to Southampton, Liverpool, Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Naples and Genoa.
Although foreign exchange transactions were conducted as early as 1895 by the Paris office, the official initiation of the company's overseas banking operations took place in 1904, when the Rotterdam office opened in Netherlands and began conducting commercial banking services.
Meanwhile, back in New York, millions of immigrants were entering the United States through Ellis Island. After uncovering several examples of flagrant swindling among the independent moneychangers on the premises, the U.S. Immigration Department awarded a contract to American Express in 1905 to provide official currency exchange services. Over the years, countless newcomers completed their first business transactions in the United States at the American Express teller's window on Ellis Island.
A singular historic event - the outbreak of World War I in Europe - brought about the next dramatic transformation of American Express and more fully shaped it, willingly or unwillingly, into a travel services company.
American Express nearly disappeared as an independent company in 1929. Chase National Bank had been quietly buying up shares of the company for several years. Not until Chase completed a tender offer for American Express did it come to light that its prospective buyer already owned 97 percent of the company.
Two unforeseen and unrelated events saved American Express from becoming fully absorbed by Chase. First, the majority of the owners of the remaining 4,702 shares of American Express balked at selling them, either refusing outright or demanding exorbitant prices. Second, in 1933, the U.S. Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited banks from engaging in nonbanking businesses. Chase was left with no choice but to divest the American Express investment it had acquired just a few years earlier.
Roiled by the Chase incident and battered by the Great Depression American Express struggled through the 1930s. Since it was not a financial institution, per se, the company continued operations during the U.S. bank holiday, and in some respects became a de facto banker for the American people. As in Europe at the outbreak of World War I, American Express offices maintained cash reserves that were sufficient to meet the demands of customers who wanted to encash their travelers cheques or money orders. The company even paid against competing products, many of which were otherwise virtually worthless since the issuing institutions had closed.
During 1938 and 1939, as the prospect of another world war loomed over Europe, there was still a sizable group of longtime American Express managers and employees who had worked for the company 25 years before, during World War I. Their past experiences - and their advance planning, in this instance - helped the company survive World War II.
Even before the official declaration of war, American Express had mounted extensive preparations to protect its financial and real estate assets, including its principal offices in Berlin, London, Paris, Rome and Rotterdam. Throughout Europe, American Express offices continued operating until the last possible moment in countries about to be invaded - often long after American embassies and consulates had been ordered to evacuate. Ultimately, the Berlin office at 3 Unter den Linden was destroyed, and the Rotterdam office sustained extensive damages.
In England, the Liverpool office and the company's London headquarters in the Haymarket were hit by German bombs during the blitz, as was the Cornhill (London) office, which somehow managed to open the morning after a devastating air raid. Amid the wreckage, local employees posted an "Open for Business" sign and continued to work frantically, making travel arrangements for Allied military leaders and diplomats, and for the evacuation of British children to America and Canada.
Throughout the conflict, company officials feared not only for the safety of employees but also for the very underpinnings of the business. There were predictions that the war might prove to be the death knell for travelers cheques, as sales would plummet when the public ceased to travel. The exact opposite proved to be true. As U.S. soldiers joined the war effort, they were encouraged by the U.S. government to carry their accumulated pay in travelers cheques. Soldiers and sailors used millions of dollars' worth of cheques; and despite the dire predictions, American Express' business did not crumble.
Between the end of the war (when the company had 1,500 employees and 50 offices) and 1950, American Express rebuilt its business and enjoyed tremendous growth. By the time of the company's centennial celebration in 1950, the American Express family had grown to include more than 5,500 employees working in 173 offices worldwide, and reported net income of more than $3 million.
As travel within and beyond the United States blossomed, the company's volume of travel business grew and set new records.
What could not be overlooked, however, was consumers' increasing use of a new device - the credit card - for travel and entertainment expenses. Opinions within American Express' ranks differed about whether or not the company should issue a card. Aware that doing so could cannibalize travelers cheque sales, the company's leaders eventually agreed that it was a better option than losing cheque sales to competitors' cards.
American Express issued its first charge card in 1958. Within five years, more than 1 million cards were in use at approximately 85,000 establishments within and outside the United States. Soon, the company began introducing local currency cards in markets outside the United States, adding programs that made it possible for cardmembers to extend payment on large travel expenditures, and launching additional products, such as the American Express Gold Card in 1966. Within ten years, the card business was growing steadily and generating a healthy profit. And, to the surprise of many, so was the company's travelers cheque business.
In the late 1970s, American Express - like many other large companies of the era - was intent on becoming a global conglomerate, with huge, multifaceted businesses and diversified income streams that could protect the company in the event of hard times in one of its core businesses. During the next several years the company acquired several large acquisitions toward that end, including Shearson Loeb Rhoades, First Data Resources, Trade Development Bank, Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb, and Investors Diversified Services (rebranded American Express Financial Advisors in 1995 and spun off as Ameriprise, Inc. in 2005).
The synergies between the subsidiaries that American Express' leaders had envisioned didn't come to pass, however. By 1985, following the string of expensive acquisitions, American Express embarked on a somewhat different strategy - to continue to build the company's core businesses from within and shed the noncore activities.
A few investments were unloaded, and it appeared as though the plan was working. American Express had a banner year in 1986, with earnings exceeding $1 billion for the first time in its history. Each of the company's operating units posted record-breaking profits. Reflecting the triumphant mood was the cover of the 1986 annual report, which showed the new American Express Tower amid the fireworks of the nearby Statue of Liberty's centenary celebration.
Although in its early years American Express was not itself a financial services company, its largest and most consistent clients were banks. Delivering the banks' typically small parcels - stock certificates, notes, currency and other financial instruments - was considerably more profitable than transporting larger freight. Soon the company would scale down its parcel and freight delivery business in favor of creating and selling its own financial products.