Financial Products in Common

This week, Wells Fargo and American Express launched Propel 365 and Propel World, two new credit cards for Wells Fargo customers that are accepted on the American Express global merchant network.

Wells Fargo Propel 365, and Wells Fargo Propel World cards

Wells Fargo Propel 365, and Wells Fargo Propel World cards

Henry Wells and William Fargo were founders of American Express in 1850, and founded Wells, Fargo and Company separately in 1852 to bring express and banking services to gold rush pioneers. Wells Fargo and American Express were competitors in the express business—transferring and shipping customers’ money and valuable goods by the fastest means available. But the two companies also had several people work for both companies, often simultaneously. The two express companies also had several products in common.

Reciprocity increased efficiency regardless of territory. In the beginning, Wells Fargo express connected with American Express and other companies in the east. In 1882, American Express introduced its own money orders, a financial product to compete with postal money orders. American Express made arrangements with Wells Fargo for payment of these money orders in eleven western states and territories, and in Mexico.

Wells Fargo introduced its own brand of express money orders in 1885, and sold a half-million of them in the first year (a $7.5 million-dollar business). Wells Fargo money orders coincided with the rise of the mail order goods business, making reliable payment accessible to even novice consumers. Wells Fargo and other express companies delivered much of the mail order goods of Chicago retail giants Montgomery Ward, and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

American Express offered the innovative traveler’s cheque in 1891. Wells Fargo & Co’s Express offered the instrument under its own name in 1903.

Wells Fargo traveler's check, and American Express traveler's cheque (Wells Fargo Corporate Archives)

Wells Fargo traveler’s check, and American Express traveler’s cheque (Wells Fargo Corporate Archives)

The two companies found synergies too beyond similar interests in products and services. They swapped office space, barns and stables, and even bought wagon horses from the same supplier in Chicago in 1897. Contracts for carrying express on various railroads were negotiated and changed hands between Wells Fargo, American Express and other express companies on a regular basis, bringing each company in and out of market and service areas.

Company baseball teams squared off against each other in friendly family rivalry as well, and in 1906 the two took their competitions into a whole new field: football. Wells Fargo and American Express squads faced off in Jamestown, New York in 1906. AmEx won 5 to 0.

In 1914, the American Express, Wells Fargo and Adams Express companies established a Bureau of Public Relations in New York City. Likely publicity manager Louis M. Porter dealt with issues of mutual interest to the expressing industry, including increasing regulation.

The federal government took over the nation’s express operators as a wartime measure in 1918. Both American Express and Wells Fargo faced a radically changed business model. American Express sustained its successful travelers cheque business. Wells Fargo & Co.’s Express, though, went from over 10,000 express offices to none, overnight. The Wells Fargo name continued in the banking business in San Francisco.

Wells Fargo’s bank and express company remained intertwined through complicated stock holdings for several decades, but the separation gradually became complete. The express continued with limited operations in Mexico and Cuba, in which American Express acquired a majority interest in 1919. American Express acquired 100% of what remained of the former Wells Fargo & Company in 1963, which by then was primarily the armored car and security business.

Wells Fargo and American Express have had intersecting business (and people) since 1852. With Propel 365 and Propel World, our long history continues to take shape.

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Guided By History

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