Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the 2015 Island Journal, published by the Island Institute, and appears here with permission.
MBNA: Four letters that stood for nothing yet oh-so-much, from the mid-1990s until 2005.
The Delaware-based credit-card lender, spun off from “Maryland Bank, National Association” dominated the Midcoast for those years. From 50 jobs in Camden in 1993 to 4,500 statewide by the early 2000s, its growth was dramatic and visible.
Some companies quietly go about their business and hope to avoid controversy. They write checks to national charitable groups and stay out of local initiatives. Not MBNA.
Describing itself as a bank without a lobby, MBNA was a cast-off division of Maryland Bank that its CEO, Charlie Cawley, and others took over and built around what they called affinity marketing. Credit cards with organization logos were issued to college alumni groups, professional associations and other such groups.
In Maine, the company introduced corporate culture to towns that never before had seen it, and sometimes it was an uneasy marriage. But despite what critics said — and they said a lot — as Maine staggered out of one of the worst recessions in decades in the early 1990s, the jobs MBNA offered were a shot of adrenaline to the Midcoast’s anemic economy.
And the corporate and personal giving — particularly on the part of Cawley — gave new meaning to the word generosity.
In July, 10 years will have passed since Bank of America purchased MBNA and those four letters passed into history.
Beyond the jobs and the infrastructure, MBNA may have had an even more profound hand in polishing — if not remaking — the public landscape of the Midcoast and some of Maine’s islands. Education and schools, libraries, YMCAs, art museums, performance spaces, parks and several nonprofits — including the Island Institute — were lifted up and set on new, firm foundations. It was a level of giving that recalled donors such as Carnegie and Rockefeller.
In the public arena, perhaps the most stunning beneficence came when the K through eighth grade Lincolnville Central School suddenly had to close because of mold problems. The state would build a new school on the site, but where would classes be held until then?
MBNA stepped in and built a school — in 54 days — on the grounds of its retreat center on Ducktrap Mountain, a building most area towns would trade their schools for in a heartbeat.
Any attempt at quantifying the economic impact or listing the donations is doomed to fail. But 10 years later, it’s a story that needs to be told.
I was a reporter and editor in the Midcoast during those years. As I think back, it seems like a dream — a vision of a train roaring through, stopping long enough for gifts to tumble out. On a July morning in 2005, it was over.
There were critics, of course. There was a dark side, and drama and conflict followed as a large national corporation tried to settle into small New England villages.
Critics claimed MBNA bullied the local newspapers. They said the nature of the business — lending through credit cards — hurt people and society as a whole. The jobs paid well, and the offices were far from the shoe and fish factories of the past. But many said the high-pressure phone sales were more like piecework than not.
Cawley was generous, but he wore his heart on his sleeve. When his gifts and expansions were questioned or opposed, he was hurt, and that hurt sometimes led to anger. Plans to grow in Camden were rebuffed by many, and it seemed Cawley responded by angrily shunning Camden for Belfast, where the company’s presence would grow to 2,500 jobs.
Later, Cawley would say he understood Camden’s wariness about the rapid growth; more community input was sought for an expansion in Rockland. With less fuss, call centers were opened in college towns such as Brunswick, Farmington, Fort Kent, Presque Isle and Orono.
The conspicuousness of the company’s spending — such as buying a small house, fixing it up and then tearing it down — rankled many a Yankee’s frugal values, and the yachts, private jets and large black sport utility vehicles enjoyed by top management seemed to be consciously flaunted.
The dramatic arc that became a pattern for MBNA was established early on.
‘On every radar’
Cawley has said his goal was to give away his wealth, and he certainly gave a lot of it away. As CEO, he imbued the company with that same ethic.
MBNA’s generosity would be seen across a host of arenas. Education and the arts were major themes. Some of the bigger ticket donations helped renovate and expand the Rockland Public Library, the Camden Public Library — Barbara Bush appeared at the ribbon-cutting ceremony — and the Belfast Free Library.
The MBNA Foundation, Cawley, or both also paid to expand the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and turned an old church into the museum’s Wyeth Center. They helped pay for Belfast’s first YMCA building and to expand Camden’s into a regional facility.
On the islands, the company donated to North Haven’s effort to create a community center and was a major source of funding for the renovated and expanded Vinalhaven school. And it purchased a former department store in Rockland and converted it to offices for the Island Institute.
“Charlie Cawley was on every nonprofit’s radar in Maine and particularly in the Midcoast,” Island Institute founder Philip Conkling remembers. “Everybody wanted to talk to Charlie.”
In the fall of 1999, he and Institute co-founder Peter Ralston booked a meeting with him and explained the needs on year-round islands. Cawley wanted to see the islands and proposed visits to Frenchboro and Swan’s Island.
“Little did we know this was going to be a tour in a helicopter,” Conkling remembered, chuckling. On Frenchboro, “We take Charlie up to see the one-room schoolhouse,” and from the small bookshelf that passed for the school library at the time, Cawley “pulled out a science reference book, published in 1964, that mentioned man going to the moon someday.”
Cawley made an immediate decision, saying, “I’m going to start an island library program,” Conkling remembered.
One of the most profound impacts MBNA had was through the hundreds of college scholarships it awarded to students in Knox and Waldo counties. Later, the company included students in nine island communities in Hancock and Cumberland counties.
Before joining the Belfast Republican Journal in 1988, I worked for a social service agency in town, doing job training. A chicken-processing plant, sardine cannery, shoe factory and french fry processor were among the big employers. Some of those who came to our office for help were women who developed carpal tunnel syndrome from cutting sardines with scissors, day in, day out, or who suffered bouts of “chicken poisoning,” some kind of bacteria that took hold in the cracks in their hands.
Flash forward to 1995, when MBNA executive Shane Flynn was giving me a tour of the beautiful new Belfast office. I heard several women’s voices calling out, “Hi, Tom!” I recognized them as the same former factory workers. Instead of cold, wet, noisy conditions, they now worked in a climate-controlled office, sitting comfortably in their cubicles.
Another personal note: As someone who loves his adopted hometown of Belfast, I am reminded of MBNA each time I walk along the waterfront. When the sprawling concrete chicken plant that dominated much of the waterfront went belly-up in 1988, it sat vacant — covered in graffiti and smelly — for nearly 10 years. City government talked about getting rid of it, but nothing was done.
MBNA purchased the property with the idea of building offices there, where its yachts could dock; instead, Cawley decided to build a park for the city.
In July 2005, while reporting for the Bangor Daily News, I learned Bank of America would be buying MBNA. Sources said the firm resisted diversifying into home mortgages and insurance and risked running out of new markets for its credit-card lending.
Today, there is no more MBNA. But its legacy remains.
Tom Groening, a former editor and reporter for the Bangor Daily News, is editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront, published by the Rockland-based Island Institute.