Amex refines its pitch to small-business cardholders

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American Express has made several attempts to escape its image as a card for the elite, with efforts such as the Bluebird prepaid card and the OptBlue pricing program for small merchants. Its latest move is focused on rewards for small-business owners.

"We have done a lot of research on small business owners and what problems they encounter," said Audrey Hendley, senior vice president of global products at American Express Open. "No two small businesses are alike, but this card is designed for a growing company or individually owned small business."

That research indicates 70% of the nation's small businesses generate less than $1 million a year in revenue.

"That's a lot of potential customers, and we also know that a third of our respondents are concerned about cash flow over the next six months," Hendley said. "They have a need and they want to grow, and this product is suited to some of those needs."

American Express Open is launching a new small business product in the Blue Business Plus card, one it hopes can garner some attention because of its no-fee, high-reward structure and the ability for users to spend over their credit limits without interest charges if paid by the end of a month.

Amex's platinum and gold rewards cards have annual fees, while Blue Business Plus and Simply Cash Plus cards do not. Blue Business represents a rewards option for its users, while Simply Cash emphasizes cash back on purchases.

"This is a core business for American Express, so it's really important to them," said Brian Riley, director of card services for Mercator Advisory Group. "But while it is good to see Amex engineering a card like this, they may find out that it has to go even further to get significant reaction from small business owners."

Much of the attention American Express has garnered in the last year has centered around its ability – or inability – to get its financial house in order in the wake of losing the Costco mega-account to Citigroup.

The company has made its strategy clear about recapturing that consumer card traffic through digital advancements, but a space in which it has been a kingpin for some time — the business card market — has also seen a growing number of challengers arise.

That mostly has come from long-time competitor JPMorgan Chase, but the market has seen plenty of newcomers and other card brands beefing up their offerings.

Ultimately, American Express has found a way to get its finances pointing upward after a rough period, Riley said. Enhancing a business card helps that effort, particularly because much of the past emphasis in improving card products in the past has been on the consumer side, Riley added.

American Express Open has focused on small business needs for the past 25 years, a tenure that has helped the company establish deeper relationships with small-business owners.

"We get to know these businesses in a different way," Hendley said. "Our experience and time in this space has enhanced our product offerings for these business owners."

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