On solemn occasions, my father used to employ a descriptive phrase he called "windshield reality."

That was his chilling metaphor to describe an event that equaled the impact of someone being hurled though a car's windshield following an accident.

And it didn't have to be tragic to register its meaning.

In the late 1970s, he repeated that phrase with alarming frequency at chez Carlino when my mother unexpectedly campaigned for a quick dissolution to their 23-year union.

I heard that unwelcome mantra again about 10 years later when his company told him his services would no longer be needed after more than two decades.

While American Express Co. hasn't exactly been catapulted through shards of safety glass, the windshield reality of a new economy and its failure to come to grips with core competencies has finally hit home.

The big news flowing out of Amex corporate last week was that the financial services conglomerate was, well, selling off its financial-advisory unit.

Seems the one-stop shopping approach has been going gangbusters for Costco and BJ's Wholesale, but over recent years, not for financial services customers of Amex.

The strategy marked a 180-degree turn for the company, which successfully leveraged its brand to market financial services product to customers who, already -- to be wry -- never left home without it.

In 1983, the company pursuing what has been frequently termed the "supermarket approach," acquired its advisory unit, which was then known as Investors Diversified Services.

That unit grew to a division that eventually employed a stable of 12,000 financial advisors counseling some 2.5 million clients.

But many viewed their offerings as nothing spectacular. On a personal note, my wife and I were told by an Amex financial advisor some years ago that for mere $1,200 a year he could manage and grow our modest portfolio.

It didn't hit me until several days later that I could glean the same information about financial products tailored to my needs that he could simply by searching the Internet. Apparently a lot of now-former Amex clients -- apparently far brighter than I -- had been thinking along the same lines for some time.

Another storyline "buried in the lead," as we members of the Fourth Estate like to say, was Amex's Tax & Business Services unit clandestinely selling off 11 of its offices to tax-prep giant H&R Block.

Arguably the top accounting consolidator in the 1990s, the unit's once-prolific mergers and acquisition unit, which gobbled up several top firms in New York and Chicago, had long ago grown cobwebs. Its activity level over the past several years has basically flatlined and the group itself has reshuffled its executive suite more often than a nervous casino dealer.

Does last week's sale to H&R Block signal a pending exit strategy similar to its financial advisory unit?

Possibly. But the company should probably make a decision rather quickly, before the reality of its competencies outside credit cards and travel services runs smack into a gargantuan windshield.

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