I point out to Caroline Lombardelli that the credit card-decorated foyer of Amex House is a nightmare for someone like me who's in denial about Christmas debt.

She has a simple suggestion. "If it's not on an American Express card you might want to take advantage of a balance transfer to get lower interest rates," says the head of European customer service, smiling.

It is this eye for business opportunities (no matter how small) that led to Caroline running her own advertising agency, turning over £10 million by the time she was 30.

It is also one of the reasons she was made responsible for 3,500 American Express employees across eight locations in Europe, 1,900 of whom are based in offices in Edward Street in Brighton.

Although she admits to being surprised when American Express approached her just over seven years ago, this isn't her first brush with financial services.

She said: "I wanted to be an accountant when I left school but, when I was 18, women didn't do accountacy. In Yorkshire it was considered very much a man's profession.

"Also, I didn't want to go to university. I wanted to get out there and do things."

She started out at an insurance company before moving to recruitment firm Manpower in the Seventies. The move led to her first short sojourn to Brighton.

"They asked me where I would like to go and I said as far away as possible from Bradford so I ended up in Brighton," she says. "I don't remember the West Pier being open but I was 19 and far more interested in the nightlife. There was a club near the Brighton Centre that I used to go to quite a lot."

After four years with Manpower she decided to start an advertising agency in London with a partner. "That's what you do when you're young, brave things," she says.

By the time they sold it in the Eighties it was turning over £10 million and employing 120 people.

She joined the board of the bigger company for a while but then, after a stint with another advertising company, she was approached about a job with American Express.

"They weren't worried I didn't know much about financial services. They were more interested in what I'd done and how I'd done it rather than my financial services experience."

Caroline continues to commute to Brighton from Farnham Common in Buckinghamshire.

She says: "It's 78 miles away, I assure you. I consulted my family before taking the job. I told them I was really attracted to it and that we could all move or that I could commute or I could turn it down.

"They said they'd stay and I could commute."

Although she doesn't live in the city, she is well aware of the company's importance to the local economy. American Express is the largest private sector employer in Brighton and Hove with more than 3,000 employees.

She said there are occasional pressures: "We represent about four or five per cent of private sector employment. You only need to take a taxi from Brighton station and the driver will give you all the news about us."

She says the company is "actually very committed"

to staying in Brighton.

"We don't have any plans to up sticks and move this operation anywhere. We own this building by the way.

"Yes, we do have a pilot going on in India but that does not mean anyone here needs to be worrying about their job.

"Whether we're talking about people, real estate or technology, this operation would not be easy to replicate elsewhere.

"The aim is to keep people employed here and, as the company grows, take some options to think about the globalisation of our company."

When she's not at work she spends time with her family. She has been married to Peter for 11 years. "The surname is his," she says. "He's Italian and that makes it very interesting at times".

She has two children from a previous marriage, David and Robert, a stepson, James, and a new addition, foster child Steven.

Her advice to budding high-fliers is simple: "Get out there and do big, bold and brave things. You will get noticed and people will give you opportunities."

Name: Caroline Lombardelli. Age: 48. Born: Bradford, West Yorkshire. Family: Married to Peter. Two sons from her previous marriage. Education: Secondary school in Bradford. Lives: Farnham Common, Bucks. Drives: A BMW 5 series. Favourite restaurant: The King and I, Brighton. Favourite possession: "I'm not a possession person."