WILMINGTON – In many ways, the reception for the annual Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Award recipient Thursday night was more of a homecoming for MBNA, Delaware’s once mighty credit card operation.
While the MBNA name may no longer exist after being acquired by Bank of America in 2006 for $35 billion, its impact on Delaware’s banking industry continues to linger, with local leaders at Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, PNC Bank, Goldman Sachs, College Ave Student Loans, and more having spent time at the company. That legacy is due to the fact that in the late 1990s, MBNA was the largest private employer in the state with more than 26,000 associates.
Many of those former MBNA associates gathered in the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel DuPont on Thursday to watch former Chief Operating Officer John Cochran and Chief Administrative Officer Lance Weaver receive the annual Freedom Award – it was the first time the award had been given to a company rather than an individual.
As a legacy of the late Gov. Pete du Pont, the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation is a nonprofit that promotes and supports entrepreneurism in the state and nation. Thère du Pont, son of the late governor and chair of the foundation’s board, said it wasn’t just the financial success of the company that warranted its honor.
“Maybe even remarkable and more instructive for the entrepreneurs in this room is the conscious effort that team made early on in their work to create a culture,” he said. “They were practically just a startup with about 150 people in a renovated A&P Supermarket in Ogletown when the leaders wrote down the precepts, as they’re called. They weren’t goals for new accounts or loan growth. They were a statement of expectations of how MBNA people would treat each other, how they treat their customers and how they wanted their operation to run.”
In his remarks, Cochran recalled just how intertwined the MBNA story was with Gov. du Pont.
In 1981, the company was still a $100 million loan portfolio of the Baltimore-based Maryland National Bank, with a more than 20% prime lending rate and an operation that lost $7 million on the bottom line. They sought interest rate relief from the Maryland legislature but were rebuked. Management at the bank were advised to begin seeking a buyer for the credit operation.
“It was going to be a fire sale. But then the Financial Center Development Act was signed into law by Pete du Pont in February 1981. The timing was perfect. It couldn’t have been any better for our credit card program and Charlie Cawley,” he said.
It famously moved to the 19,000-square-foot former grocery store with about 50 people, turning a profit in the first year. Within 10 years, they would employ 10,000 people and occupy 5 million square feet of space, largely on the back of affinity cards, or branded credit cards issued with universities, organizations, sports teams and more.
MBNA was led by the late Cawley, a tenacious and gifted leader, and board chair and CEO Alfred Lerner, whose legacy continues in Delaware through the business college named in his honor at the University of Delaware.
Cochran recalled Cawley’s undying devotion to customer service, creating the nation’s first 24/7 customer service hotline for a credit card, and consistently challenging company leaders to cut through red tape to improve a customer’s experience. It was spurred in part from one letter from a Maryland National Bank executive about the troubles his wife had in contesting a charge that made its way to Cawley.
“The management team was called to a conference room to listen to Charlie read all of the customer service dispute letters he could get his hands on, and at the end of each reading Charlie would say, ‘Think of yourself as this customer. How would you feel?’ The meeting went on for several hours and continued at 7 a.m. the next morning and many mornings after that,” Cochran said.
Afterward, customer service was rebranded customer assistance, phones were required to be answered within two rings and all paychecks were branded with the line “Brought to you by the customer.”
Weaver concurred with the customer focus and recalled a time when then-DuPont CEO Jack Krol called the company to seek a credit line increase while he was out Christmas shopping. Unsatisfied that the hotline told him it would take a few days, Krol called Cawley.
“Then Charlie gets us all into a room and tells the story John just told him. So, Charlie said, ‘You idiots don’t seem to understand that this is a customer calling in and they want more of our product. Our product is credit. They want more of our product, and you’re telling him we’ll get back to him in a few days?” Weaver said.
After that incident, near-instant credit checks and approvals became the norm for MBNA and today is an industry-wide standard.
MBNA and DuPont would cross once more in the late 1990s, when Krol called Weaver about the prospect of selling its Louviers property near Newark. After much negotiation – and Cawley’s unexpected demand to also acquire the neighboring DuPont-owned golf club – Weaver closed the $14 million deal, creating what is today known as the Deerfield office complex and golf course.
Weaver noted that MBNA also worked to serve all of its employees, with the company building a hiring program for people with cognitive disabilities after Cawley was approached by some local advocates. When they later came back to inform Cawley that the benefits package offered by the company wasn’t meeting their needs, the founder demanded that leadership tailor a new package to do so.
In the end, the memory of MBNA lives on beneath Delaware’s still growing banking industry, but for one night it was back in the spotlight.
“I often get asked what the magic of MBNA was, and the magic was its people,” Weaver said.