No matter where you are around the world, flash an American Express card and you are guaranteed to be understood, no matter the country, culture or language. Whether the card is green, platinum, gold, plum, or the rare and invitation-only black, the trusted Roman Centurion emblazoned across the iconic card speaks of reliability and integrity.
Affectionately known as AmEx, the brand has offered various services since it launched as an express mail business in 1850. The company’s credit card celebrates its sixtieth anniversary next year, with Elvis Presley one of the earliest card members and comedian Bob Hope one of the earliest celebrities to promote it. Meanwhile, the 1975 slogan ‘Don’t Leave Home Without It’ triggered hundreds of thousands of travellers to stock up on American Express Travellers Cheques before heading to the airport.
Paul Abbott enjoyed a 20-year history with the company before being appointed executive vice- president of Commercial Payments in 2015. It’s a role that is vital as American Express faces enormous change in transactions, technology and customer expectations.
A new global division
Responsible for the company’s worldwide commercial payments outside of the US – which is hugely significant considering this is where 70% of the world’s purchasing power is located – Paul is also leading a new global division managing relationships with global business clients. Granted, serving businesses has always been a core commitment of American Express, but this international division consolidates all its products and services for international companies.
“We are increasing focus on our business customers and increasing the level of investment in our commercial payments business,” Paul explains. “We recently combined our 5 commercial business units into a single organisation. This new global unit has really strengthened the range of products and services we offer while increasing the value we deliver.
"It’s a very large opportunity, and unlike many of our competitors, we are 100% focused on payment, which positions us very well to take advantage of B2B payments and of expanding our SME business. In 2016, we grew billings for the SME business by 13%.”
The iconic green corporate card
With business customers driving nearly 40% of American Express’s global spending volume – around US$400 billion of billings – the days of the card being used simply to manage travel and entertainment payments are well and truly gone. “We first began issuing corporate cards 50 years ago, and when people say ‘American Express’, one of the first products that may come to mind is our iconic green corporate card,” Paul admits.
“That product still thrives today, but our business has changed significantly. Today, American Express is the biggest payment issuer by spending volume in the world, with a very diverse portfolio of payment and cashflow solutions for businesses of all sizes, in more than 200 countries.
“With our proud history, many probably think of us as serving large and global customers, but we are actually the leading issuer for small- and mid-sized businesses,” Paul adds. “In fact, more than 75% of our business now comprises servicing SMEs. It’s an area we have invested in significantly and will continue to be one of the major areas of investment over the next 3 to 5 years.”
Diversified business spending
Paul is also extremely aware of how business spending habits have diversified, with companies using the card to manage not only direct payments but also indirect expenses. “Although travel and entertainment expenses are still an important part of our business, the majority of payments we process for our customers today are not related at all to travel or entertainment,” he explains.
“They’re electronic payments for a very broad range of goods and services, including advertising, office supplies, computer hardware, resale goods, jet fuel and shipping costs. A major area of focus for us internationally is working with our customers to improve the efficiency and cashflow of more and more spend categories.”
Change driven by technology
Technology is another force driving change within the industry – a conundrum Paul describes as “fast and furious” – which, while creating more competition, also offers a world of possibilities. “It is very exciting to see the range of change driven by technology,” Paul says.
“There is digital commerce, new apps, mobile payments, social media, GPS, artificial intelligence, and new kinds of currency emerging such as Bitcoin. Yes, this creates new players and introduces more competition into the industry, but, honestly, I am more focused on the opportunities it creates. We already have a number of partnerships with lending or underwriting companies, or with companies bringing new currency or international payment solutions to market.
"The opportunity for us is to create a very powerful distribution network by bringing those capabilities into our value proposition and providing the opportunity for those companies to get access to very large and high-value customers based around the world. So, while technology is certainly presenting change, it is really presenting a tremendous amount of opportunity for us.”
Built on a foundation of trust
Paul attributes a number of things to what sets American Express apart from its competitors. Starting with the obvious, he cites the brand as being an enormous advantage, reflecting the way business has been expertly done for 167 years and automatically setting an expectation that American Express is still keen to meet.
Service is very much the heart and soul of the company … Our customers expect exceptional service every day because that is the standard that we have set.
“Our brand is built on a foundation of trust: trust that our customers place in us to deliver on our promises, and to have the ability to make things right if we fall short,” Paul says. “We are a partner that can help them be more successful, more efficient, improve their cashflow, and help them find more ways to grow. Sometimes we just provide access to advice and insight to help make better-informed decisions. We really want to be an extended part of our customer’s team, and that brand positioning is unique to American Express.
“Service is definitely the second area of differentiation for us; it’s very much the heart and soul of the company,” Paul adds. “Our customers expect exceptional service every day, because that is the standard that we have set. We work hard to see the world through their eyes, to exceed their expectations and always find new ways to make their business more successful.
“The third area is relationships. We have a large, high-quality, loyal customer base, and our people work hard every day to strengthen and grow our relationships by providing more value to our customers,” Paul continues. “It is that commitment to our customers that creates the strong long-term relationships we have. It is these 3 things – the brand, the service and our relationships – which form the foundation of what makes us different.”