Current CEO Ken I. Chenault took over leadership of American Express in 2001 from Harvey Golub, CEO from 1993 to 2001. Prior to that, the company was headed by James D. Robinson III from 1977 to 1993.Charge card services American Express Tower (tallest, left) in New York City
American Express executives discussed the possibility of launching a travel charge card as early as 1946, but it was not until Diners Club launched their card in March 1950 that American Express began to seriously consider the possibility. At the end of 1957, American Express CEO Ralph Reed decided to get into the card business, and by the launch date of October 1, 1958 public interest had become so significant that they issued 250,000 cards prior to the official launch date. The card was launched with an annual fee of $6, $1 higher than Diners Club, to be seen as a premium product. The first cards were paper, with the account number and cardmember's name typed. It was not until 1959 that American Express began issuing embossed ISO/IEC 7810 plastic cards, an industry first.
In 1966, American Express introduced the Gold Card and in 1984 the Platinum Card, clearly defining different market segments within its own business, a practice that has proliferated across a broad array of industries. The Platinum Card was billed as super-exclusive and had a $250 annual fee (it is currently $450). It was offered by invitation only to American Express customers with at least 2 years of tenure, significant spending, and excellent payment history; it is now open to applications on request.
In 1987, American Express introduced the Optima card, their first credit card product. Previously, all American Express cards had to be paid in full each month, but Optima allowed customers to carry a balance (the charge cards also now allow extended payment options on qualifying charges based on credit availability). Although American Express no longer accepts applications for the Optima brand of cards, since July 13, 2009, Optima cards are still listed on the American Express website, as a reference to existing members only. According to American Express, Optima accounts were not converted or closed. However, Blue from American Express has prevailed as the replacement for the original Optima style of credit card. Blue includes multiple benefits free of charge, unlike Optima, including the Membership Rewards program. In October 2012, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced an enforcement action with orders requiring three American Express subsidiaries to refund an estimated $85 million to approximately 250,000 customers for illegal card practices. This action was the result of a multi-part federal investigation which found that at every stage of the consumer experience, from marketing to enrollment to payment to debt collection, American Express violated consumer protection laws. American Express did send letters to some previous customers: "We invite you to apply for the Optima Card from American Express. This opportunity is in connection with a settlement solicitation, which did not clearly disclose that a settlement could prevent you from being approved for a new account with us in the future. This is in response to an enforcement action by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding this issue. Your attached application will be approved unless we determine that you do not have the financial capacity to make the minimum payment on this new Optima Card account, or we receive the application after 04/25/2013."
In April 1992, American Express spun off its subsidiary, First Data Corp., in an IPO. Then, in October 1996, the company distributed the remaining majority of its holdings in First Data Corp., reducing its ownership to less than 5%.
In 1994, the Optima True Grace card was introduced. The card was unique in that it offered a grace period on all purchases whether a balance was carried on the card or not (as opposed to traditional revolving credit cards which charge interest on new purchases if so much as $1 was carried over). The card was discontinued a few years later; the now discontinued One from American Express card offered a similar feature called "Interest Protection.""Boston Fee Party"
From early 1980s until the early 1990s, American Express was known for cutting its merchant fees (also known as a "discount rate") to merchants and restaurants if they accepted only American Express and no other credit or charge cards. This prompted competitors such as Visa and MasterCard to cry foul for a while as the tactics "locked" restaurants into American Express. The practice ended in 1991, as several restaurants in Boston started accepting and encouraging the use of Visa and MasterCard because of their far lower fees as compared to American Express' fees at the time (which were about 4% for each transaction versus around 1.2% at the time for Visa and MasterCard). A few even stopped accepting American Express credit and charge cards. The revolt, known as the "Boston Fee Party" (in reference to the Boston Tea Party), was orchestrated by a PR firm hired and paid by Discover Card. The campaign spread to over 250 restaurants across the United States, including restaurants in other cities such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In response, American Express reduced its discount rate gradually to compete more effectively and add new merchants such as supermarkets and drugstores to its network. Many elements of the exclusive acceptance program were also phased out and American Express pursued other programs to effectively encourage businesses to add American Express cards to their existing list of payment options.Cable TV
American Express formed a joint venture with Warner Communications in 1979 called Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, which created MTV, Nickelodeon, and The Movie Channel. The partnership lasted only until 1984. The properties were sold to Viacom soon after.Conversion to bank holding company
On November 10, 2008, during the financial crisis of 2008, the company won Federal Reserve System approval to convert to a bank holding company, making it eligible for government help under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. At that time, American Express had total consolidated assets of about $127 billion. In June 2009, $3.39 billion in TARP funds were repaid plus $74.4 million in dividend payments, and in July 2009 they ended their obligations under TARP by buying back $340 million in Treasury warrants.Controversy in the UK
In November 2010 the UK division of American Express was cautioned by the Office of Fair Trading for the use of controversial charging orders against those in debt. The regulator said that the company was one of four companies who were encouraging customers to turn their unsecured credit card debts into a form of secured debt.Loyalty acquisition
In March 2011, American Express completed a $685m purchase of Loyalty Partner, which operates the Payback loyalty program in Germany and Poland, and the i-Mint loyalty program in India.