MBNA’s trademark green awnings have vanished, but glory days linger

When Navroze Eduljee started DecisivEdge in Newark, he hired former MBNAers like himself because he knew their work ethic and values. DecisivEdge has 13 former MBNAers on staff. Several work in Newark: (from left) Kristy Adkins, Andrew Yonce, Greg Miller, Ken Netzorg, Navroze Eduljee, Don Nichols, Susan Moore, Mike Frayler, Michele Frayler, Andrew MacDowell and John DeStefano. // Photo by Ron Dubick
When Navroze Eduljee started DecisivEdge in Newark, he hired former MBNAers like himself because he knew their work ethic and values. DecisivEdge has 13 former MBNAers on staff. Several work in Newark: (from left) Kristy Adkins,
Andrew Yonce, Greg Miller, Ken Netzorg, Navroze Eduljee, Don Nichols, Susan Moore, Mike Frayler, Michele Frayler, Andrew MacDowell and John DeStefano. // Photo by Ron Dubick

The days of $30,000 bonuses and ‘the golden noose’ are over.

by Kathy Canavan

A former MBNAer says he’s miffed every time he drives by the company’s old Ogletown campus and notices a random section of the once-imposing black wrought iron fence is missing.

MBNA people still relive the glory days when the bank founded in an abandoned A&P became the world’s largest independent credit card issuer. But, a decade after it was acquired by Bank of America, there’s nary an outward sign MBNA existed.

Nobody refers to Joe Biden as the senator from MBNA anymore. The mega-bank’s imposing buildings have been rebranded. The exteriors have been whitewashed, and the trademark green awnings have vanished. Charlie Cawley, the brains behind the bank’s lucrative affinity cards, died in November.

Cawley’s picture-perfect Westover Hills property now hosts three separate residences — his original home, his oversized garage and a newly erected smaller house. The in-house dry cleaner at the bank’s Wilmington headquarters is just a room in a charter school now. A Chick-fil-A and an oversized Wawa have risen on a formerly grassy wedge in front of the bank’s massive old Christiana Center.

The heady days when junior execs made $30,000 Christmas bonuses and big prizes were given away all day whenever a department reached its goal are plainly over.

MBNA people have scattered to banks across the United States. The bank that once hired away the Hotel du Pont’s pastry chef is kaput.

MBNA still lives online, though. An MBNA Alumni Facebook page boasts 5,865 members and a LinkedIn page has 1,310. They write things like “to my MBNA family” and “wish I still had that old pay!” One posted a selfie taken when he ran into the former MBNA tailor at the mall. Another displayed a collection of jewel-encrusted MBNA charms.

“I get daily feeds and it’s fun to see who’s on there. It’s neat to see people you haven’t seen in a long time,” said Dana Isom, who left the bank in 2007. “We still have that sense of community, because we all grew up together and we all learned the same exact philosophies and values. When we left and went to other companies, we still kind of infused those values.”

People outside MBNA used words like “cult” and “Stepford employees” to describe the pressure-cooker lifestyle where the bank’s “people” made outsized salaries and won big-screen TVs and other prizes for breaking sales records for affinity cards — credit cards linked to a particular institution.

Even inside MBNA, people called it “the golden noose.” As one manager put it, “MBNA was named tops for working mothers by Working Mother magazine, because they had all those great flextime programs, but God forbid you ever take advantage of them.”

Many New Castle County families were vaulted into the upper class with Cawley’s philosophy of paying top people whopping salaries, though. One assistant vice president, whose salary doubled upon being hired there, said, “MBNA saved my financial life.”

These were the days

Dana Isom, who now works for Barclaycard, is one of the former MBNA employees who moved to banks across the U.S.
Dana Isom, who now works for Barclaycard, is one of the former MBNA employees who moved to banks across the U.S.

The company steamed ahead from 1982 to 2006, issuing 9.3 million cards in 1996 alone. It leapfrogged over DuPont to become the state’s largest employer. It opened the industry’s first 24-hour call center. Phones were picked up within two rings. Workweeks sometimes stretched to seven days. Barely 11 years after it began, MBNA was one of the country’s 50 most profitable companies, earning $2.34 billion in 2003.

“It was a growth company, so it had all the dynamics of a growth company. They had goals to grow nationally and then expand internationally, so it was big and challenging and exciting, and you were certainly rewarded for participating in that. It was one of those jobs you start making plans around. All of a sudden, you can plan to get a bigger house, which we did. You can send your kids to private school,” said Newt Bugbee, now a senior writer at J.P. Morgan Chase.

Bugbee said Cawley worked as hard as he expected others to work, driving 63 miles to Ogletown from his Towson, Md., home every morning in the early years and driving back every night. “That’s one of the things people forget about Charlie Cawley because he was sort of a big fish in a small pond of Delaware. He really worked hard to make that thing a success,” Bugbee said.

Margaret Erickson-Menton, whose name was listed on the bank’s Founders Wall, left the bank to start a commercial cleaning business to hire people who had difficulty finding employment. “The reason I liked working at MBNA is because they valued giving back as much as I did,” she said.  “Every one of the upper executives had a charity they worked with.”

When Cawley heard one nonprofit had been operating without air conditioning for years, he dispatched installers with brand-new air conditioners, Menton-Erickson said. When another nonprofit bought a building with a buckling back wall, Cawley wrote a $30,000 check to fix it and dispatched some MBNA engineers to oversee the construction.

“The community service started from the minute we moved in Delaware, which was fabulous,” Menton-Erickson said. “Mr. Cawley was a dichotomy. He was a very good man, but he also expected that he was the god and you should do what he said when he said it.”

“We received a better salary and we received great benefits, but the expectations were much greater than with many institutions,” said Robert W. Rescigno, now dean of the College of Business at Wilmington University.  “We believed, all of us, that we made a difference. We could do something in three months that would take another bank three years. MBNA was not for everybody. There’s a term called ‘banker’s hours.’ Well, at MBNA, there was no such thing. You’re putting in 50, 60, 70 hours a week. We were paid a lot more than any other bank, but we were also working a lot more, too, to reach our goals.”

Frances Oates, whose job included reviewing applications for the $3 million in grants MBNA gave to school teachers each year, spent almost 30 years at The News Journal before she segued to the bank in 1994. “I really didn’t have any other corporate job, but I knew that MBNA was much more paternalistic than other corporations,” Oates said. “They took really good care of us.” MBNA continued her health benefits for three years until she was eligible for Medicare.

The flip side of that was long hours, complete dedication, and even a unique lexicon. As one VP put it, “We were the masters of the euphemism. ‘Collections’ was ‘Customer assistance,’ and ‘Customer’ was always capitalized.”

Employees were never “employees,” they were “MBNA people.” There were no problems, just “challenges.”  “People” weren’t “trained,” they were “educated.”

“You were expected to devote your life pretty much to MBNA,” Oates said. “I was kind of a piker. I refused to go in on holidays and I refused to go in on weekends, unless there was something special, but my normal workweek was probably 60 hours, and, if there was something going on, it was more. People above my rank were expected to show face on weekends.”

“I think that’s true of many companies now,” Oates said. “MBNA may have been a little ahead of the curve in Wilmington then, but, now, a lot of people who are working 24/7 are not being taken care of.”

Hours aside, Oates said Cawley “really treasured” the MBNA people. She said Cawley named MBNA’s stock symbol – KRB – after Kenneth R. Bowman, a company director who died shortly before the company went public.

And, when Dana Isom’s daughter goes to college next year, MNBA will help foot the bill. The bank gave every new parent an extra week off and a $2,500 certificate of deposit to save for college.

The bank’s focus on the customer service was legendary. “Think of yourself as a customer” is still stenciled on the walls of some buildings Bank of America inherited when it acquired MBNA. And Oates said Cawley had this printed on every paycheck: “Brought to you by the Customer.”

Where are they all now?

When Bank of America acquired MBNA in 2006, many midlevel employees were offered generous packages such as two years pay plus benefits. Top execs did better.

“Quite frankly, a lot of people who were not let go were disappointed because they wanted that package,” said former MBNAer Aaron Leonard, now an Edward Jones financial advisor in Greenville, who says many of his clients are former MBNAers.

Leonard said his income with Edward Jones is quadruple his MBNA salary, he works about one-third as many hours, and he doesn’t have to deal with bank politics now, but MBNA was a great place to be in his 20s. “I would never go back and not have worked at MBNA,” Leonard said. “That’s where everybody picked up a great work ethic and learned how to make customers come first. Nothing comes for free — you need to work hard to get to where you want to be eventually.”

When former MBNAer Navroze Eduljee opened DecisivEdge, a Newark tech company, he hired his old co-workers as soon as his non-solicitation agreement with Bank of America was up. “I was putting my reputation and my financial well-being on the line. Obviously, I wanted to work with people from my team who I had worked with,” he said. “One of the things about MBNA people is we tend to stick together, I think because we’ve all been through so much together.”

Eduljee, whose staff now includes 13 MBNA alumni, said MBNAers often hire other MBNAers because of their shared ethic. He said you could go to any of these local companies and pass ex-MBNAers in the hallways: Citibank, Navient, TD Bank, Sallie Mae, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and College Avenue Student Loans.

Hal Erskine, a former MBNA director who now runs Erskine Financial Services, has a database of the top 200 credit-card issuers in the United States. He estimates at least half of them are run by former MBNAers.  “You’ve got all these banks across the nation who hired MBNA people. That’s been Delaware’s loss for us, but it’s been good for all those companies,” he said.

‘The MBNA Attitude’

MBNA molded its employees, many of whom were under 30 when they hired on. The company encouraged its thinking with booklets like “The MBNA Attitude.”

Hal Erskine, a former division president at MBNA who now owns Erskine Financial Services, volunteers with Junior Achievement of Delaware.
Hal Erskine, a former division president at MBNA who now owns Erskine Financial Services, volunteers with Junior Achievement of Delaware.

Years later, those MBNA values have infused other companies, like Eduljee’s DecisivEdge. Greg Miller, who works there, said Eduljee had a very tight following at MBNA and, when word spread that he was starting his own technology and business consulting business, ex-MBNAers wanted to work with him. “People who used to work for MBNA tend to stick together,” Miller said. “They want to work with other MBNAers because there’s a trust factor and a work ethic. A lot of the precepts — work hard, put the customer first – all that stuff was ingrained in us. That stays with you.”

Cawley’s full-throttle sales tactics and Delaware’s no-ceiling interest rates were a match made in bank heaven. The company made billions, and Cawley gave away millions to Delaware charities. MBNA reigned in Delaware for 24 years, and, then, all physical signs of it vanished.

No more $1 million company retreats. No vintage Duesenberg convertibles in lobby. No walls dotted with original Wyeths. The high-flying days of 1982 to 2006 are only in the back of people’s minds now. It’s an ephemeral memory like a trip to Disneyland, said one exec who spent months searching for another position.

“When you’re going to Disney and you’re just getting off the highway, when you can’t even see the Magic Kingdom yet, you start to see the controlled environment. The minute you’re on the property, the color of the roadside signs changes. The landscaping changes. That’s how MBNA was,”the exec said. “People are searching for what they’re not going to find again. It’s gone. There are no signs of it anymore.”

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