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Obituary: Charles Cawley  

2015-12-16 13:07:56|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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The man from MBNA

Charles Cawley, credit-card billionaire and saviour of mid-coast Maine, died on November 18th, aged 75

WHEN he gave lectures to inspire college students, Charles Cawley liked to riff on the bolder meanings of the term “entrepreneur”. Yet the word was a pale, fluttering thing when applied to him. He was a rip-roaring old-style corporate boss, directly in the line of DuPont, Carnegie and Rockefeller. And he revelled in it.

He founded MBNA Corporation, built it into a credit-card colossus and ran it as an extension of his will for 12 years. In those years he bestrode Wilmington, Delaware and mid-coast Maine, leaving in his wake not only MBNA offices trimmed in Kelly green but also new wings on museums, new halls for schools, new ballfields and waterfront developments, and a workforce of ex-lobstermen and shoemakers trained (or “educated”, as he preferred), to wear suits and ties to work and answer calls promptly in the politest tone of voice. On Wall Street, they hardly knew him and seldom saw him; but in struggling seaside towns up and down Maine, in Portland, Rockland, Belfast and Camden, as well as in unsung bits of Cleveland and Texas, his name was spoken with touch-the-cap reverence. If, as a Mainer, you were forced off the road by some of his chugging antique cars out for a spin on a Sunday, or stuck behind his friends’ thronging private jets at the Knox County airport, you reflected that a man who gave so much so freely could surely spend it, too.


The first year was a struggle to hang in there; but in that damply cavernous space Mr Cawley could be king, and his ideas for MBNA could resound. The best scheme of all was to introduce affinity cards carrying pictures of customers’ colleges, sports teams or favourite charities, and offer the institutions a cut of the fees. If customers felt proud of, and loyal to, their card, he reasoned—rather than viewing it as a mere bit of plastic—they would be less likely to default. He offered the scheme first to Georgetown University, his alma mater, where he had spent many a student evening singing Irish standards and 50s classics with the Chimes. Georgetown accepted, to be followed by 5,000 other bodies and institutions, while MBNA’s jealous competitors scrambled to do the same. 
Mr Cawley was not a patient man. He knew it, and had a company yacht called Impatience, in which he could barge around the islands in Penobscot Bay. It took very little in the way of resistance to him—a flower in the wrong place on MBNA property, a row of tiles set crooked—to turn his face fire-red under the white thatch and get him shouting. Nonetheless he bore with real fortitude, worthy of the monks who had taught him at St Benedict’s Prep in Newark, his ten years of trying to run the credit-card arm of the Maryland National Bank while Maryland’s legislators (“some of the dumbest people I have ever known”), refused to lift the state’s cap on interest rates on credit cards. In 1982 he decided to wait no longer. Just over the state line in banker-loving Delaware the usury laws were more elastic; so he took his team, a mere 50 in those days, to the basement of an empty Delaware A&P store.

Only his due

In 1991, when he split with the bank and MBNA went public, he had employees in the thousands and loans in the billions. As a result he decided to resurrect poor, post-industrial Maine, the place of dreamy teenage summers on his grandfather’s seashore estate. In 1993 Mr Cawley took over the old Knox Woollen Mill in downtown Camden. Nearby Belfast begged to have him; he sheathed its waterfront in glass offices. Call-centres for part-timers were scattered across Maine like diamonds. His slogans boomed from the walls of his buildings, and life-size bronze animals or vintage Duesenbergs prowled in their lobbies. As the father of the firm, he provided his “people” with in-house legal advice, an annual “corn-boil” with famous entertainers, canteens, day care and funeral assistance. He made sure they read the right papers and bought their shirts at the right shops. The drifting young were invited to his 16,000-square-foot “cottage” in the coastal woods, to see what you could get with hard work.

Old-style paternalism went with old-style politics. The Bushes senior and junior received handsome donations from him, as did Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware (then known as “the senator from MBNA”), to ease the passage of the Bankruptcy Reform Act, which came down hard on credit-card debtors. But its signing, in 2005, came too late to do him any good.

For by then Mr Cawley had walked out of MBNA in a rage, and his baby had been swallowed up for $35 billion by Bank of America. In 2003 he fell out with MBNA’s board, when his ideas for future compensation for himself and his inner circle, a protective cohort of former FBI and military men, had been rejected. He was then earning $50m a year, in stock and cash: his due, as he saw it, together with private use of the company aircraft and boats and the paintings, mostly by his friend Andrew Wyeth, that hung in his house. As he gave freely, and always had, so he had every right to reward himself.

The bean-counters, though, did not agree. Since they dared to tell him so, he left. And it was inevitable, then, that MBNA—sold with 50m customers, 30,000 employees and $120 billion in loans—should shortly become slim-line, quiet and unshowy, as if it had never been his.


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