Rafael Marquez explains how the financial services company is putting small businesses at the heart of its strategy and helping them grow for the future
Since the inception of American Express in 1850, reinvention has been central to its longevity. From its origins as a freight forwarding company, shipping parcels between the east and west coasts of America, to the establishment of a global travel and payments business (which has now evolved to include mobile as well as digital payments), innovation – along with an unwavering commitment to helping small businesses thrive and grow – has been at its core.
According to the Office for National Statistics there are 1.9m more new business ventures in Britain than there were in 2000. What’s more, the 2015 Amex Small Business Barometer reveals that 88 per cent of small firms are reporting growth, compared to 44 per cent this time last year. However, although the data paints a buoyant picture and this is one of the busiest times of year for many small businesses, success is by no means a foregone conclusion.
American Express UK’s managing director, Rafael Marquez, appreciates the obstacles. “Increased competition, cashflow issues and the importance of attracting new customers are just some of the challenges small businesses face on a day-to-day basis, so we’re focused on how we can help them,” he explains. Born in Seville, Spain, Marquez’s family moved to Mexico when he was seven and he remained there for the next 30 years. Having started out as an industrial engineer, he swapped career paths and joined American Express in 1999. Over this time he has held various positions including managing the company’s Spanish operation and spearheading American Express’ small business activities internationally. Marquez moved to London with his wife and four children nearly five years ago.
Living in a neighbourhood where there are lots of small businesses, Marquez takes a personal interest in their success. “These small independent businesses, many of which are family- run, offer something individual and special for their customers while adding to the character and personality of the local area,” he says.
Within his current role, Marquez’s goal is to help the nation’s five million SMEs build their businesses for the future. “A more buoyant small-business community benefits the entire country,” says Marquez. “SMEs are a major employer and form the backbone of our local communities. Their success is critical to the growth of our national economy.”
So how is American Express helping? “Amex has a long history of working with small businesses,” says Marquez, “whether that’s through the products we offer such as our Gold and Platinum Business Cards, which help with cashflow and expense management, or the thousands of small merchants around the UK that accept our cards. Our customers are everyone from the small coffee shop on the street corner to the IT software company on an industrial estate.
“One of the attractions to small businesses is that we are the only issuer that operates a closed loop,” by which, Marquez explains, American Express has a direct relationship with both the Cardmember and the merchant. “This means we can offer tailored, targeted insights and marketing that is relevant to consumers and extremely valuable for businesses. When you marry this with a base of customers who are motivated to use their American Express cards because of the rewards and offers they receive, then the opportunities to add to your bottom line are significant.”
The company regularly runs bespoke offers and tailored marketing activity such as location-based offers for individual merchants. But a timely example of how this ‘closed loop’ can work is the company’s recent Shop Small promotion, incentivising Cardmembers to shop in small, local independent shops by rewarding them.
“For two weeks in December,” says Marquez “when Cardmembers spend £10 in a participating small merchant, they get £5 back. All the merchants are included on an easy-to-use online map so that customers can quickly search for their local store either near their home or work. This is a great offer for Cardmembers and merchants appreciate the benefit of driving loyal, high-spending customers through their doors.”
As principal supporter of Small Business Saturday in the UK and founding partner of the initiative in the US, American Express has also been providing marketing support for small businesses over the crucial Christmas retail period, when a share of the limelight can prove difficult to access. “In addition to running a major TV and online campaign to shine a spotlight on small businesses, this year we’ve also given small businesses access to the new American Express Ad Creator tool, so they can create personalised digital advertising and increase their online visibility,” says Marquez.
Small Business Saturday took place in the UK on 5 December. “This is our third year of supporting a campaign which has been phenomenally successful,” adds Marquez. “In 2014, 16.5 million people shopped in small independent businesses on the day, up 20 per cent on 2013, spending an estimated £504m – up £36m on 2013. It’s now a key day in the shopping calendar.”
Marquez concludes: “Of course, at American Express, we’re about offering added value for our customers all year round. Whether that’s payment solutions to help them run their businesses more efficiently or using our marketing expertise and assets to their advantage, we have the small-business owners’ needs firmly in our sights”.
To find out more about how American Express can help your business, visit americanexpress.com
Bob England is director of England at Home – a small Brighton business specialising in homeware. He says: “Small businesses all have similar challenges – we need to continually find new customers and products, and keep things exciting for existing customers.
“Shop Small is a great initiative for small businesses that accept American Express cards. All we had to do was register with American Express and they did the rest. They put us on an interactive map which their customers could see, so they could easily find us, and also plenty of point-of-sale material so that anyone passing by was aware we were taking part.
“American Express incentivised their members to Shop Small by giving cash back depending on how much they spent. Small-business owners benefit because we see increased footfall. One of the great things for a retailer is that it’s free and from the customer’s point of view they get money back for spending. A bonus is that people have kept coming back – we are getting their repeat custom.”