AMEX’s Journey from Courier to Creditor

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olden daysHave you swiped your American Express card lately?

If so, you belong to one of the most ambitious company pivots ever known. The credit card company known for its prestigious clientele was once a shipping company and up until the early 1900’s, it exclusively shipped stuff at an expedited pace across America.

The origins of the namesake comes from the company’s previous model, an express courier service in the mid 1800s. During that time, “express” services were the next up-and-coming industry. These services allowed quick and precise shipping of small, valuable items around the United States, and were frequent among people who were concerned with the fragility of their items. It was also a second, faster option to the US Postal Service.

By 1850, the top express services realized that their competition was doing more harm than good for one another. That’s when three New York-based express companies owned by Henry Wells, William Fargo, and John Butterfield combined their companies into one, dubbing the new service American Express.

During the formation of American Express, the California gold rush was at its peak. Promises of new cities that were an escape from the smog dens of the east coast brought millions of Americans out west. Wells and Fargo, the first President and Vice President of American Express, respectively, moved out to San Francisco in an attempt to extend American Express to the west coast during this time.

Wells and Fargo were discouraged by their colleagues at American Express to branch out west, and were forced to simultaneously run American Express in the East, and their new company in the west. This western venture became known as Wells Fargo.

Throughout the rest of the 1800s, American Express continued their ventures in express shipping, expanding operations into railways and expanding their routes around the east coast. The Civil War was a huge growth spurt for the company as the demand for express shipping skyrocketed.

After both Wells and Fargo made their way through the ranks at American Express, both serving as President prior to their departure, it was James Fargo, the son of William, who some say is the individual who introduced the idea of providing financial services for customers in 1891. James was the one to introduce American Express’ money order, a cheaper and more modern version of a system already in place by the postal service at that time. American Express became the provider of the go-to money order for immigrants who wished to send money to their families in various parts of the world. After the huge success of the money orders, this led to the company releasing their trademark product, the traveler’s check, at the turn of the century.

Their full blown transition to financial services occurred in 1918, when the US government nationalized all express shipping companies as part of the World War I fighting effort. This resulted in the company being left only to function off of its two side ventures, money orders and travelers checks.

These stayed relatively stagnant for the next fifty-or-so years until American Express started to become what we know them as in today’s market. In 1958, the company issued its first credit card. Half a million people signed up for the card in its first 90 days on the market.

The rest is history. The charge card, then the tier’d cards, followed by their prestigious centurion or “black” card, the options expanded into different tiers of luxury through credit. This prestige that justifies the consumer fee, combined with the high fees they charge merchants to process the payments, is why the company is so successful. As American Express clients tend to make and spend more money, merchants are inclined to take American Express cards to attract their market, and just consider the higher fees as just a cost of doing business.

Not only is American Express an impeccable example of brand construction and marketing, but a great learning opportunity for any business who is forced to change their business model due to extenuating circumstances. Their story gives the notion that no matter the size of the company, the opportunities are endless with the right balance of dedication, innovation, and calculated risk taking.

Last modified: November 24, 2021
Adam ZakiAdam Zaki was a Reporter at deBanked.

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