MBNA office sparks Hunt Valley revival

Office vacancies down from 20% to 6% since regional center opened

Credit cards

July 11, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Less than two years after returning to the state, MBNA Corp. has become Baltimore County's 10th-largest employer and helped spark a revival at Hunt Valley, one of the area's most important employment centers.

At the same time, the credit card giant has adjusted -- downward -- some of the projections it made in 1997 for its mid-Atlantic headquarters in Hunt Valley.

With 1,200 people hired in the past 20 months, MBNA still says 3,000 will eventually work at the Hunt Valley complex, the same number as at its largest regional office, in Camden, Maine. But it no longer promises to reach that level by year's end.

The company, which originally planned a three-building complex, has more than doubled the size of the old 140,000-square-foot PHH Corp. headquarters it purchased two years ago.

It says that building, coupled with the 160,000 square feet of office space it has built, is enough to meet its needs.

County officials had predicted that the 3,000-employee level would push MBNA's annual payroll to $150 million, but that has proved overly optimistic.

The company declined to disclose its payroll for Hunt Valley but said starting salaries for most employees is $25,000, plus benefits and bonuses. The county had promised that salaries would average $50,000.

Nonetheless, county officials say they are happy with MBNA's performance. "They have fulfilled every expectation," said Robert L. Hannon, Baltimore County's economic development director

"For them to be at 1,200 [employees], I couldn't be more pleased," he said.

And the hiring continues, amid a heavy dose of MBNA corporate culture.

Each day, job applicants come in a steady stream to the building on McCormick Road, signing in at a glass-enclosed security desk and pasting paper identification badges on their chests before going to the personnel office.

Above the office door -- and every doorway in the building -- are the words, "Think of yourself as a customer."

Employees sit in cubicles working phones and computers around the clock to answer customers' questions and to sell credit cards and financial products. Every wall is painted with slogans urging employees to look after customers and pay attention to details.

In the customer satisfaction department, green balloons float above the desks of MBNA "people" (the company doesn't use the term employee) who have been recognized for outstanding customer service.

MBNA's button-down approach sometimes has clashed with the cultures at other regional locations, particularly in the small-town atmosphere of its Maine regional headquarters. But the company seems to fit in Hunt Valley, which has been a business center for 30 years.

"We are all very pleased with the Hunt Valley operation," said Scott Hudson, regional manager of the Hunt Valley operation.

MBNA started in Baltimore in 1982 as a subsidiary of MNC Financial Inc., parent of Maryland National Bank, and was taken public by MNC Chairman Alfred Lerner in 1991 to help raise money for the parent company.

MNC was taken over by NationsBank Corp., and MBNA has risen to become the third-largest credit card company in the nation, with $27.5 billion in assets and more than 20,000 employees, about half of them at its headquarters in Wilmington, Del.

Although MBNA left Maryland in 1982 because of a dispute with lawmakers over interest rate charges, MBNA President Charles Cawley agreed to expand into the state after being lured by two longtime friends, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Francis X. Kelly, a former state senator who heads the board of trustees at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County.

The Hunt Valley center is responsible for credit card customers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York City and Washington.

"MBNA's decision to come to Hunt Valley came at a time when Hunt Valley had been at a higher vacancy situation than it is today," said Hannon, the county economic development director.

Office vacancy rates in Hunt Valley have dropped from more than 20 percent in the second quarter of 1997 to 6 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to the Realty Information Group in Bethesda.

The stronger economy is probably responsible for much of the improvement, but MBNA deserves credit, too, said Richie Blue, executive vice president of Colliers Pinkard real estate company.

"Until that point [MBNA's decision], we had seen people moving out of the area," he said. "It's a psychological thing . It tells other companies that this is a viable area."

Although MBNA executives had wondered whether the Baltimore region could supply the workers it needed, the company has had no trouble finding qualified employees, said Shane Flynn, who is in charge of MBNA's regional operation centers.

"I've seen great people within the Hunt Valley," he said. "The results we have seen out of Hunt Valley are among the best we've seen."

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