American Express’s New Design Team

Thomas Gannon brought American Express’s planning and construction workforce in-house, and now it’s creating everything from flexible office spaces to luxury airport lounges

The recently completed American Express office building in Brighton, England, houses 3,000 staff and has flexible floor plats, which allow future working patterns to be easily accommodated. (Photo: Jim Stephenson)
The Brighton office interior boasts a staff restaurant, a gymnasium, a conference center, and underground parking, along with cafés and “break-out” points throughout the workplace for staff interaction. (Photo: Jim Stephenson)

For American Express, being blue is not a figure of speech; the company just really likes the color. The firm, with revenues of more than $30 billion, uses the hue to brand everything from the familiar background of its logo to its basic Blue credit card (with its accompanying Blue Rewards) to BlueWork, American Express’s global real estate strategy for providing more flexibility and efficiency in the workplace.

BlueWork enables American Express to make better use of its existing space while creating an environment that is more in tune with how employees are working today. By building more open and collaborative work spaces and better determining how employees work—including whether they need dedicated seats in the office or have flexibility in where they get their work done—the company’s in-house real estate team has increased productivity while simultaneously saving the company real estate costs.

Thomas Gannon, vice president of global design and construction within American Express’s Global Real Estate and Workplace Enablement group, is part of the team driving the strategy. The company brought Gannon into the fold in June 2011. And, after reevaluating its real estate platform, the first thing he did was lead the company away from the outsourcing of its design and construction. “The industry trend with corporate real estate groups is moving to an outsourced model,” Gannon says. “So, when American Express decided to move in-house, it definitely raised some eyebrows.”

It was this opportunity to assemble a new team and improve the company’s talent, process, and project delivery that ultimately drew Gannon to the position. “What we’ve really been able to do … is build a world-class design and construction team that is unlike most corporate real estate teams,” he says. “Our team is [composed] of industry-grounded professionals who have established careers as builders, developers, engineers, and architects.”

American Express headquarters (Photo: Jim Stephenson)
American Express headquarters (Photo: Jim Stephenson)

The design and construction team’s macro goal is the execution and delivery of American Express’s global capital plan. With more than 30 people in the department, including four directors, who oversee the four strategic markets and the more than 40 countries the company services, its range of projects varies greatly. Along with BlueWork, Gannon’s team is actively engaged in updating the corporate, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and design standards of the company. It is also involved in creating The Centurion Lounges, which build on American Express’s heritage and act as a physical expression of the brand’s commitment to deliver world-class service and experience to its card members. American Express has already opened locations in Las Vegas and Dallas airports, and more are planned for the next two years.

These airport destinations offer high-end amenities and services, including gourmet food from renowned chefs and a broad beverage selection curated by an award-winning mixologist and wine director. Available at no charge to Centurion and Platinum card members (all other card members can purchase a $50 one-day pass), the spaces are meant to be flexible, giving travelers many ways to relax, play, or work. Semiprivate workspaces, computer bars, conference spaces, and printers allow professionals to stay connected in style, and family rooms with video games, books, and toys reduce the stress of travel. Gannon says everything from the furniture to the finishes was scrutinized to ensure that the spaces offer a premium-level visitor experience that reflects the American Express brand.

In building its new office in Brighton, American Express noted one of its main challenges was the steep site, with a 12-meter change in elevation. Adding to the challenge were high standards for sustainability, which Gannon’s team achieved, setting a benchmark in the city. (Photo: Jim Stephenson)
In building its new office in Brighton, American Express noted one of its main challenges was the steep site, with a 12-meter change in elevation. Adding to the challenge were high standards for sustainability, which Gannon’s team achieved, setting a benchmark in the city. (Photo: Jim Stephenson)

Planning for the Centurion Lounge concept began in 2011, and the first location, in Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport, debuted in February 2013. A second lounge opened at Dallas Fort Worth airport in October 2013. Gannon and his team oversaw the projects from site selection and due diligence through the hiring of the architects and construction teams, ensuring that the company’s vision was achieved.

Gannon also reinforces the company’s vision through the updating of its corporate facilities to its BlueWork standard, which influences everything from small office refreshes to multimillion dollar new builds. Prior to a BlueWork move, American Express surveys employees about their roles and then works with them to determine their work style: home, roam, club, or hub. Employees in the home group are assisted in setting up home offices so that they can work remotely. The roam group includes those who are normally on the road and who rarely work at the office. Club employees are more flexible and can split their time between home and office. And, finally, a hub employee is a traditional worker who requires a dedicated desk.

Gannon’s team oversaw the design of American Express’s new Centurion Lounges inside airports in Dallas (pictured here) and Las Vegas. The lounges offer high-end amenities and services to card members.
Gannon’s team oversaw the design of American Express’s new Centurion Lounges inside airports in Dallas (pictured here) and Las Vegas. The lounges offer high-end amenities and services to card members.

BlueWork has enabled American Express to be more efficient with its real estate space, garnering the company major savings with no evident drawbacks; in fact, by allowing employees to work in the manners best suited to their roles, the company has actually developed a more engaged, committed staff.

To ensure that the system continues to help the company, American Express also surveys employees several months after every BlueWork implementation to understand what’s working and what’s not. Gannon’s team makes adjustments based on the feedback and incorporates them into the next project. And, to keep the design and construction staff sharp, an online resource of training materials is always readily available.

Centurion Lounge in Dallas
Centurion Lounge in Dallas

While the global real estate team functions as an autonomous unit within American Express’s Global Business Services group, it must answer to the company’s multiple stakeholders. Because of this, Gannon and his team are deliberate in their planning, spending the majority of their time conducting due diligence and analyzing projects from a corporate-strategy perspective while working with the company’s other internal business units on a property portfolio comprising 12 million square feet.

“In taking this role, I felt like I had an opportunity to do something very entrepreneurial,” Gannon says. “At the same time, since global real estate is really a business unit within a much larger organization, everything that we’re doing supports the company’s key strategies.”

Centurion Lounge in Dallas
Centurion Lounge in Dallas