Amex has faced trouble before. In the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, merchants started to turn away the Amex card because of its hefty swipe fees, which at the time were as high as 3.5 percent. In 1991, a group of 100 restaurateurs in Boston staged what became known as the Boston Fee Party. “There was a big recession going on,” says Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio’s, a popular Italian restaurant in the city and one of the Fee Partiers. “The garbage guys and the meat guys were helping us out, but American Express wasn’t doing anything for us.” Visa did its best to make the situation worse with an ad campaign featuring celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and other merchants who didn’t take American Express. ... JPMorgan and Barclays have poached Amex’s high-spending customers with generous card offers and lower annual fees. Two years ago, Chase cards surpassed Amex in American households making at least $125,000 a year ... “Part of my job is to persuade,” Chenault said. Never mind that even the Black Card no longer has the same mystique with the young moneyed set that Amex desperately needs to attract. In 2004, Kanye West boasted about his, memorably referring to it in a song as the “African American Express card.” But last year, Young Thug, the rap icon and influencer of the moment, rhymed in the hedonistic hit Lifestyle about having a $1.5 million spending limit on his Visa card.
Costco acts more like a cheerful cult than a hard-driving business. Its executives are proud of the fact that the company promotes almost exclusively from within. Even CEO Craig Jelinek, 62, plainspoken and without affectation, once collected shopping carts at a Costco predecessor, and 98% of the company’s store managers have risen through the ranks. Its top executives have been working together for 30 years, more or less, which makes them family as much as colleagues. It also means there are a lot of gray heads now at those budget meetings. ... And therein lies the concern. At that month’s meetings, there were warm and wistful send-offs for six of those gray heads, all senior vice presidents, now retiring. And even though they would be replaced by younger Costco lifers, the succession raises a question: As the company approaches its 35th anniversary, will the replacements keep Costco as Costco? ... It is the question. Lots of companies brag about their culture. But few are as proud of it or as dependent upon it as Costco is. Morgan Stanley retail analyst Simeon Gutman calls it a “super-culture,” which he describes as, “If we continue to serve and delight our customers, they’ll want to keep coming back.