American Express Co. is reaching out to small businesses with its latest offering via America Online.

Appealing to business owners of the interactive service's three million clients, American Express is using its on-line site, ExpressNet, to position itself as an expert and resource through a service it calls Small Business Network.

Alice Bredin, a journalist and small-business authority, was recruited to be the main attraction of the service.

Ms. Bredin is sharing her expertise with entrepreneurs, fielding questions, writing a weekly column on small-business issues, and hiring speakers to host monthly advice sessions.

In addition, American Express small-business cardmembers can access billing information and communicate with the customer service department electronically.

In an example of how the Small Business Network provides a forum for entrepreneurs to talk with each other, one recent user posted a query on the bulletin board, "Ask SBAdviser," about starting a gift supply company. Included was a question about what sort of profit could be expected.

Within minutes another user supplied an answer, suggesting that more than a 25% profit was possible.

"Small-business owners often work in an isolated environment that does not allow them the luxury of bouncing questions off of colleagues," said Anne O'Malley, a senior manager in American Express' small-business group.

Ms. Bredin is one of a number of celebrities and journalists who are hosting so-called electronic forums. The New York Times reported that the three major PC network services, America Online, Prodigy, and Compuserve, are actively wooing moderators to lead electronic discussions on a variety of news, financial, and health topics.

Ms. Bredin is known for appearances on the public radio "Marketplace" program, and her syndicated weekly newspaper column, "Working at Home."

The journalist's contract with American Express requires her to be available to ExpressNet users at least eight hours a week. Also, she is supposed to answer all questions within 48 hours. Ms. O'Malley said Ms. Bredin checks the bulletin board daily.

American Express is counting on Ms. Bredin's reputation, in part, to lure casual browsers who would not ordinarily click into the ExpressNet web of services.

American Express' contract with Vienna, Va.-based America Online prohibits it from compiling a list of the people who tap into the Small Business Network.

"If this enhances our image, that's fine," said Ms. O'Malley, "but we will not be actively pursuing these on-line users."

And industry observers believe ExpressNet should, and will, motivate bank card issuers to offer similar on-line services.

Richard K. Crone, director of the Center for Electronic Banking in KPMG Peat Markwick LLP's Financial Services Consulting Practice, praised American Express for making, "one of the first 'homestead claims' in the electronic frontier."

In an opinion piece earlier this year, Mr. Crone said, "With the entrance of American Express into the electronic arena, the pressure is on for banks to recognize the trends in consumer demand and compete on-line."

ExpressNet allows American Express cardholders to check the status of their accounts, pay their American Express bills, make travel reservations, enroll in special programs like Membership Miles, and apply for additional cards.

America Online users who are not American Express customers also can access travel information through ExpressNet, which includes various data bases like Frommer's Online Travel Service.

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