Wild Geese: Audrey Hendley, American Express executive, New York
‘Own what’s different about you, and make that part of your personal brand’
Audrey Hendley: “Americans are very open, very supportive, very encouraging and very free.”
In 1989, Ireland’s economy was in disarray and, with college recruiting all but nonexistent, the whale-call of the United States proved much too fruitful for many graduates to ignore.
Arklow native Audrey Hendley was a lucky recipient of a sought-after and since-discontinued Donnelly visa. She flew to New York the day after she handed in her master’s thesis in marketing management, eager for what the city might hold, but convinced she would be home after a couple of years.
As it turned out, a return to Ireland was never on the cards. She didn’t get the job she wanted at first, so Hendley took on a plethora of part-time and temp jobs, including a gig at her local Barnes & Noble, while applying to top firms across the city. After two years and plenty of gumption, Hendley found herself walking through the front doors at American Express, where she interviewed for a junior marketing role.
She got the job, not realising at the time the significance of the appointment. “When [you] look back now, you wonder: ‘Why did they hire me?’,” Hendley says. “I guess they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Two years after she arrived, Amex made the Fortune 500 list, where it has remained for the last 24 years.
Hendley joined the company’s quarter-century club last year. Over that time, she has held more than 10 positions, from consulting services to customer acquisition and travel business.
To succeed in the US, she says, requires a fusion of smart networking and knowing when to ask for help. “I had two Irish women in my office [recently] who happened to be at the beginning of their career ladder asking for advice. The people who are here a little longer have no problem paying it forward to other Irish who are coming here.”
As a young hire, humble and hungry to learn, Hendley had a unique vantage point of an ever-evolving New York corporate landscape. Now a top executive at Amex, she remains ready to offer advice and mentorship to New York newcomers from a pre-9/11 perspective.
The Amex tower is close to the World Trade Center. Not only did the building suffer major structural damage as a result of the 9/11 attacks, but Hendley witnessed the terror firsthand.
“9/11 is a day I will never forget,” Hendley says. “I was just approaching the building from underground and realised something serious was happening. I came above ground, stood on the corner of the World Trade Center site and witnessed so many horrific events, from the second plane going into the tower to people taking their own lives. Such a sad and terrible day.”
Since 9/11, Amex – like so many other American companies – has regained its footing, steadily growing year on year. Hendley similarly blossomed over the years and was inducted into the company’s hall of fame in 2012.
Her latest promotion saw her named president of global travel and lifestyle services earlier this year, a title which comes with no fewer than 9,000 employees under her leadership across the globe. It also necessitates a lot of travel.
“I internally have a joke that my new office is in the Delta lounge at JFK,” says Hendley.
“I never anticipated that this would be,” admits Hendley, “[but] I think through the process of time, hard work and also just being lucky, I’ve ended up where I am today.”
The mother of two – who met her husband at a fleadh on Randall’s Island – is adamant that those same opportunities afforded her in the beginning of her American career are still available to those Irish who travel to the US today, despite the headlines and the political landscape.
“I feel that, in America, the culture is [that] you can be whatever you want to be,” she says. “You don’t have to have a father who was a doctor to think you should become a doctor. Americans are very open, very supportive, very encouraging and very free. It’s a very liberated environment that opens up a lot of opportunities for people who have the tenacity to take advantage.”
Hendley advises those coming over to be confident in what you know, and encourages a personal point of difference.
“It’s okay to have new ideas; you don’t have to conform,” she says. “Own being Irish, own being what’s different about you, and make that part of your personal brand.”
Although her passion for the US is clear, Hendley is profoundly optimistic about the tech and finance explosion currently under way at home. Working with Tourism Ireland occasionally, she has been able to admire and rally the growth from afar.
“I shouldn’t be surprised [by the Irish tech boom]. I’m more delighted,” she says. “I meet a lot of these companies – Salesforce, Facebook – in my work here at American Express, and I’m very proud to be part of the fact those companies are saying: ‘Ireland is open for business.’ I think, as the Irish culture has evolved, so too has the business culture. It’s part of Ireland becoming a more competitive nation and positioning itself for the next generation of business.”
And while visa restrictions may detract from the once-voracious lure of the American dream, Hendley is vehement that the opportunities for Irish in the US are still endless.