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Paying final respects to a titan of the corporate sales world

Charles Michael Cawley was an old-fashioned corporate boss who used power not just to enrich shareholders but to make an impact on those around him.

Charles Michael Cawley was an old-fashioned corporate boss who used power not just to enrich shareholders but to make an impact on those around him.

The MBNA America Bank founder, 75, was buried Nov. 21 at a Catholic church in Camden, Maine, the seaside town where he spent summers as a kid and which he revived as a giant satellite office for the credit-card lender he created. That once-dominant company has now been sold off, rebranded, and forgotten, since even the loudest firms in time prove as fragile as people.

Cawley was a bigger power in Delaware, where MBNA replaced DuPont Co. for a time as the leading employer, and exerted influence on Wall Street and Washington.

Cawley deserves a place beside Tom Watson of IBM, A.P. Giannini of Bank of America, and even Steve Jobs of Apple in the pantheon of masters of U.S. corporate sales culture. More likely he will remain obscure, since MBNA, under Cawley's partner, Wall Street operator Alfred Lerner, kept a low profile from the early 1980s until it was bought and dismantled by Bank of America 10 years ago.

The Jesuit-educated son of a hard-driving consumer-finance manager, Cawley was a grandiose, blunt, emotional, demanding, giving, and maniacally focused boss. He pioneered the trick of marketing credit cards to colleges (starting with his alma mater, Georgetown University) and professional groups (starting with the nation's neglected dentists).

To run the accounts his marketing machine created, Cawley turned vacant city lots, closed factories, and a former A&P into light-flooded call centers; deployed armies of hungry local tradespeople; half-inspired and half-terrifed new college grads to believe they were gifted managers; built programs for disabled workers; annoyed summer people with his big new house and his fast, loud boat; and fabulously patronized neighborhood cultural, educational, and eating establishments.

"You 'train' horses; we educate men and women," he liked to say. "Attention to detail drives everything we do," he painted on MBNA's walls.

"Financial products are sold, not bought," he told me.

He dispatched lobbyists and directed donations to pass legislation that blocked American credit-card debtors from federal bankruptcy protection. Cawley was unapologetic that his empire's best customers ran deep into debt.

He collected more than $300 million in his last 10 years as CEO. After Lerner died in 2002, his son Randolph Lerner and other directors clipped Cawley's option grants and demanded he pay for using company jets. He stepped aside.

Cawley's charity was extensive. He helped a poor New Jersey kid attend prep school and Yale, only to see the young man die in a drug deal, as recounted in the book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs.

Longer lasting is the mark Cawley left on people such as former MBNA manager Cindy Mann, now principal of Padua Academy in Wilmington. She asked Cawley to teach her "how to think big," she told me. Like many Cawley lieutenants, she changed careers when the bank was sold and has built the all-girls prep school until there's a waiting list to get in.

She says Cawley taught her "service, leadership, courage, treatment of people - to think, to vision, to move with courage and conviction - without excuses, or words like can't."