When Bank of America Corp. announced its $35 billion acquisition of MBNA Corp. in summer 2005, many people questioned whether it would work.
MBNA, a stand-alone credit-card giant that started in Baltimore as part of MNC Financial Inc., took pride in its fast-paced and entrepreneurial spirit, its freewheeling spending and a secretive corporate culture. Executives roamed its opulent headquarters in Wilmington, Del., where the phrase, "Think of yourself as a customer," was spelled out in small gold capital letters on both sides of at least 1,700 doorways. Paintings by Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell adorned the walls.
The executives enjoyed generous salaries and lavish perks - from the company's private golf course and fleets of corporate jets to yachts and vintage cars.
Employees carried around the MBNA corporate precepts on small note cards and sported MBNA logo pins on their lapels.
Bank of America, of Charlotte, N.C., was a no-nonsense, low-cost operator. With almost 5,800 branches, the bank believed that size and smarts were far more crucial than speed.
It was also an acquisition machine, transforming itself from a small regional bank into a national powerhouse by imposing its will on the companies it swallowed, including MBNA.
That did not exactly happen with MBNA. Even as they moved swiftly to reduce its high costs, Bank of America executives worked hard to ensure that many of MBNA's practices remained intact.
"On Day 1, I was directed that this was not like the ones you are used to," said Clifford A. Skelton, a former Navy fighter pilot who helped manage Bank of America's 2003 takeover of FleetBoston Financial before leading the MBNA transition last year.
"For us to come in like the Huns and say, `We are taking it over, you're doing it our way'" just would not work, Skelton said.
The MBNA acquisition perhaps signals the end of an era.
Next week, Kenneth D. Lewis, Bank of America's chairman and chief executive, is expected to present to investors his plans for a new approach: to steer the company away from acquisitions and toward more internal growth. Bank of America is hampered by a federal deposit cap, and Lewis has said he feels no "strategic imperative" to do another big deal.
But the careful approach that Bank of America took in digesting MBNA suggests an interest in acquiring skills as much as size. It is a case study in the lengths to which a company will go to ensure that two vastly different cultures can peacefully coexist.
When the MBNA integration began in early July 2005, the task seemed daunting. But the payoff was potentially enormous.
In one fell swoop, the transaction gave Bank of America a combined 122 million consumer cardholder accounts and vaulted it ahead of Citigroup as the country's largest credit-card issuer.
The deal also placed it within striking distance of Citigroup as the nation's biggest bank by market capitalization.
Executives began comparing thousands of practices of both companies. Everything, from high-level customer service metrics to the role of the call-center operator, was reviewed.
On many of the bigger business issues, Bank of America elected to follow MBNA methods it had long admired - from its partnership marketing expertise to its aggressive debt collection techniques and reliance on high fees.
Bank of America retained MBNA's huge technology system. It kept all 12 of MBNA's major call centers, including one in Hunt Valley, Md., while shedding a few of its own. It also locked in several top MBNA executives.
But smaller details were similarly debated as the transition team sought compromise. Take the employee dress code, for example.
In keeping with its buttoned-down culture, MBNA employees came to work each day in a jacket and tie. Bank of America workers were strictly business casual.
Transition team managers surveyed employees to identify the "voice of the associate." They analyzed the potential impact of any change in the dress code on culture.
Ultimately, the team reached a middle ground: business suits are still required in the credit-card division's corporate offices and in front of clients, but back-office functions are mainly business casual.
"The good news is that we have gotten more conscious about how we look and pay more attention to it," said Skelton, Bank of America's transition team leader. "Our new MBNA teammates are able to ratchet down some of the formality, and with that formality, some of the hierarchy."
Still, Bank of America bowed to some MBNA traditions. Shortly after the merger, MBNA employees were given pins with the Bank of America logo.
They have traded in their "green and gold spirit points" for similar Bank of America incentives, and have been steeped in the bank's core values.
Bank of America executives have put MBNA's signature gold "Think of yourself as a customer" letters up on their own buildings' walls.
Even Bruce L. Hammonds, the former MBNA chief executive who now oversees Bank of America's credit-card business, was surprised.