American Express banks on Salt Lake

''We thought the friendliness was phony at first,'' says Richard C. Hicks, who hails from hard-bitten New York. But after a few visits, he found Salt Lake City to be genuinely folksy, and the decision was made.

Later this year, the American Express Company will transplant its largest division, Travelers Cheques, from the steel canyons of the Big Apple to Salt Lake City.

Mr. Hicks, vice-president in charge of the Travelers Cheques division, says the company needed a stabler work force at lower wages. He looked at 63 cities before choosing Salt Lake.

Although friendliness was not the deciding factor, Mr. Hicks says American Express felt that the quality of life in the valley would translate into the quality of service from the firm's employees - 1,350 in all to work here.

Also, the area's wage levels are generally 10 percent below those in New York; the education levels are among the highest in the nation; the skiing and the arts are top quality; and the Mormon-engrained work ethic is almost unique in the United States.

But could 250 or so transferred New Yorkers be happy in a land where a majority of people spend much of their nonworking time involved in Mormon church activities?

A consultant was hired to live in Salt Lake for a while, and Mormons in the New York office were asked to discuss openly any potential problems.

''Our only concern was that relocated families would find their children social outcasts,'' Mr. Hicks said. ''We can solve that by selecting neighborhoods that are not heavily Mormon.''

Only a handful of American Express's New York staff have refused to move.

''For newcomers, there is usually some cultural shock at first. It is a different city,'' says Mary Beth Beck of Executive Relocation Services in Salt Lake. ''People have to dig in fast and find an organization to identify with. Parents have to make sure that their children have after-school activities. Otherwise, you get the feeling that if you are not a Mormon, then you may not feel that you belong,'' she says.

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