CHARLES M. CAWLEY IS not just president of the banking company that almost single-handedly introduced affinity marketing to the credit card business.

He also belongs to at least two of the 3,000 groups that MBNA Corp. has targeted with its affinity cards.

"I happen to collect vintage automobiles," Mr. Cawley said, recalling the genesis two years ago of MBNA's "America's Great Cars" series of credit cards. "My most important vintage car is a 1960 Mercedes 300 SL roadster, a version of the gullwing."

He goes on to list a 1941 Cadillac -- one of the three models pictured on his credit card -- as among his most prized possessions. His enthusiasm illustrates the inherent power of affinity marketing.

Mr. Cawley also happens to be an alumnus of Georgetown University, which became the very first to sign up for the MBNA affinity card program in 1982.

Analysts say the company's affinity menu is so varied that an affluent consumer may be the target of a half-dozen MBNA cards.

The financial strength and loyalty of these customers has enabled MBNA and its subsidiary, MBNA America Bank, to build an $1 1 billion portfolio of managed credit card loans -- up from $135 million in the early 1980s. Its chargeoffs and delinquency rates are far below the industry average.

The typical customer of this card-focused bank is a homeowner earning $55,000 a year who has been steadily employed for 15 years and has paid bills on time for 14 years.

The average account balance is $2,166, compared to $1,419 industrywide -- and the MBNA cardholder conducts 38 transactions a year, versus 30 for the average bank card customer.

MBNA, which was spun off by MNC Financial Inc. of Baltimore in 199 1, ranks second in balances to Citicorp among issuers of MasterCard and Visa credit cards.

It recently opened a bank in Britain, which has a long tradition of clubs and societies that analysts say could be ripe for affinity cards.

"The United Kingdom is at least as much a nation of joiners as the U.S. is. I don't think it's a bad bet," said David B. Hilder, financial services analyst at First Boston Corp.

In the first half of 1993, the Newark, Del., credit card bank reported net income of $87.9 million. The return on assets of 2.82% was well over twice the banking industry average. The net credit loss ratio was 3.03%, compared to an industry average of about 5%.

MBNA issues cards under licensing agreements with groups ranging from the American Dental Association to the American Legion to the National Association for Stock Car Racing, better known as Nascar. And it is reputed to drive a harder bargain with its partners than do others on the growing list of banks trying to imitate the affinity strategy.

The company has considered proposals to issue cobranded cards, a recent form of affinity product that offers rebates or other enhancements in addition to playing on consumers' group loyalties. But Mr. Cawley said he has yet to see a proposal that meets MBNA's thresholds for profitability.

Proponents of this approach say banks must add tangible value, such as a rebate, to maintain relationships with today's value-hungry consumers. But the advent of popular cards sponsored by American Telephone and Telegraph Co., General Motors Corp., General Electric Co., and Ford Motor Co. has had no visible effect on MBNA customers' loyalty.

Indeed, MBNA's card-balance growth has accelerated to about 20% annually, from the 15% range, said Mr. Hilder of First Boston.

"There is a very clear, deliberate management focus that has as a touchstone customer service," Mr. Hilder said. "They have done the basic blocking and tackling at the senior management levels in a very effective way."

Mr. Cawley, 53, said he never envisioned the company's getting so big. He became a believer as the advantages of targeting cards to small sectors of the population became clear.

"Life by the inch is a cinch; life by the yard is hard," he says.

A longtime employee in consumer credit at MNC Financial, Mr. Cawley said he founded the unit intending to market credit cards nationally. The affinity strategy was inspired by a program linking several banks with the American Automobile Association.

"You can grow as large as you want," Mr. Cawley recalls being told by his chairman, Alfred E. Lerner, "as long as credit losses don't exceed 3%."

At the time, card industry losses averaged 4.5%.

Initially, Mr. Cawley said, the idea was to meet the credit-quality goal by going after older customers who were "more secure in their credit habits."

That's one reason the average MBNA cardholder is 42 years old, though the company now issues a number of cards geared to medical students and other Younger groups.

Mr. Cawley conceded that the bank's marketing can be highly subjective. Indeed, he said the personalized nature of MBNA's cards and credit-review process may be the Company's biggest strength.

While many credit card companies have automated credit screening, he said, every MBNA loan is still approved by a credit analyst -- and will be, as long as he is in charge.

Although computerized scoring models are used to manage accounts at MBNA, Mr. Cawley is skeptical that technology will prove foolproof for building accounts.

Besides, he said, computers are incapable of making some of the decisions that help build loyalty, such as increasing a credit limit.

The bank also relies on a personalized level of service that mass marketeers would find hard to match.

"A former dentist deals with the American Dental Association," Mr. Cawley said. "In the transportation sector, we have an automobile hobbyist."

The proof that he has taken the right approach, Mr. Cawley said, is the bottom line. This year, he said, "we will have acquired more than 2.5 million accounts in a highly competitive environment. Our receivables will grow by over 20%. We'll lose virtually zero to AT&T, GM, or Ford."

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