Charles Cawley presides over MBNA Corp. as a captain does over a ship. As long as the affinity card specialist keeps pumping out profits, the seas are calm, the voyage prosperous.

But nothing in Mr. Cawley's view to the horizon is calm or complacent. "Success is only as good as today," he said recently. "Complacency is the only enemy we could have."

MBNA has had a flawless passage in five years as a public company. In the first half of 1996 it added $3.9 billion in managed loans and four million accounts, including 1.5 million for its new platinum card.

The Newark, Del., company earned $195.5 million from January through June, up from $145.5 million in the first six months of 1995.

Customers borrowed a net $2 billion more in July and August, bringing outstandings to $33 billion, in more than 17 million accounts.

Among MasterCard and Visa issuers, MBNA ranks second only to Citicorp in outstandings and accounts. Chargeoffs in the second quarter were a relatively modest 3.46%, even as delinquency rates became more troublesome elsewhere.

Mr. Cawley, president of MBNA Corp. and chairman and chief executive of its MBNA America Bank subsidiary, attributed their success to a corporate philosophy that revolves around quality service and customer retention.

"We pay attention to the people in our company, providing an environment where they pay good attention to our customers," Mr. Cawley said.

A typical customer owns a home, has family income of $59,000, and a 14- year record of paying bills on time.

Richard Speer, chairman and chief executive of Speer & Associates, an Atlanta consulting firm, said Mr. Cawley's "strong personality" imbues the company with an almost "religious, born-again" culture. He called Mr. Cawley one of the "founding fathers" of credit cards.

While his stature today is unquestioned, Mr. Cawley, 56, said he made a less than grand entrance into the card industry in 1969. He was at First National Bank of Boston, happily handing out car loans - he is an automobile enthusiast - when a credit card division was opened next to his office.

After its first mass mailing, Mr. Cawley said, the card division "got so overwhelmed with responses" that he was called in to help. Though he eventually would leave the Boston bank, he was in the card business to stay.

He moved in 1972 to Maryland National Bank in Baltimore and 10 years later formed MBNA. It was then a unit of the holding company MNC Financial Inc. and had been created to take advantage of Delaware's relaxed restrictions on interest rates. Spun off by a troubled MNC in 1991, MBNA Corp. became a publicly traded company that has been in the black ever since.

David Hunt, another card industry pioneer and the former president of AT&T Universal Card Services, said Mr. Cawley "did an awful lot to legitimize credit cards as a stand-alone business."

Mr. Hunt said that, by "escaping from a dying parent, MBNA set the stage for other 'monoline' institutions enjoying success today."

Alex W. "Pete" Hart, chief executive of Advanta Corp., which is regarded as a successful "monoline" issuer (and was profiled in last year's "Leaders of the Bank Card Business"), said Mr. Cawley's "leadership, vision, and will created something of remarkable value."

"Charlie defined and developed the whole affinity card market," said Mr. Speer, the consultant.

Mr. Cawley said he saw little magic in the marketing method he crafted with co-founders John Cochran and Bruce Hammonds, now MBNA vice chairmen. First, there was a desire to find good customers and expand a regional business into a national one. MNC Financial was game but didn't want to risk large losses.

The three executives needed to attract creditworthy customers and made a list of candidates - doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. To reach them, the trio decided to work with intermediary groups - associations that had access to the people with whom they wanted to do business.

Drawing on his own affiliation with Georgetown University - of which he is a graduate - Mr. Cawley acquired for MBNA its first endorsement.

The company went on to gain the endorsements of thousands of groups - from the National Football League to the Society for the Preservation of Barbershop Quartet Singing. Today, no program is rejected as too small, no challenge is seen as too big.

MBNA has put cards in the hands of 56% of all physicians in the country, 70% of dentists, and 30% of lawyers. More than 800,000 teachers carry an MBNA card.

The issuer markets to university students and alumni, environmentalists, sports fans, and music lovers. Since Jan. 1, MBNA has signed up 350 groups, for a total of 4,300 endorsements, reaching about 90 million potential customers.

Charles R. Walsh, executive vice president of Chase Manhattan Corp., who serves with Mr. Cawley on MasterCard International's board of directors, said the affinity strategy made sense for the upstart card issuer.

"Larger institutions had the value of their individual brands, but MBNA was not a household name," Mr. Walsh said. "Cobranding with some association or group that had widespread appeal enhanced the brand of MBNA."

Mr. Walsh has announced his retirement, effective early next year, but his MBNA contemporary has no intention of following suit.

"I'd like to see the company get a little older and a little bigger," Mr. Cawley said.

Referring to a pact he made with MBNA Corp. chairman Alfred Lerner, Mr. Cawley said, "After our families comes MBNA. Neither of us is showing any signs of weakening."

Mr. Cawley attributed his continued success to eight regional and sales offices that bring the bank "closer to our customers to better grasp how to appeal to them." He said he had courted L.L. Bean, the mail-order marketer, for years but was able to close the deal only after he set up shop in Maine.

To another office in Texas, Mr. Cawley attributed $2 billion of outstandings, 1.3 million cardholders, 202 affinity endorsements, and $500 million of retail deposits.

Looking to Europe, the bank plans to follow its successful entry into Britain with a Belgian operation.

"We're second today," Mr. Cawley said, "but not too many years ago we were around 40. We have to remember where we came from and keep in mind where we want to be."

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