Capital One Financial Corp. is the epitome of discipline and caution. That, plus a scientific approach to marketing and credit-granting, explains why it is one of the most profitable banking companies in the United States.

Under CEO Richard Fairbank, it won first place in this year's U.S. Banker survey among specialty lenders, and ranked third among all the 100 companies included in the survey. Perhaps more important, 2000 clearly was no fluke for Capital One. Based on return on average equity and growth in per-share earnings, the Falls Church, VA-based company has a strikingly strong track record of top-notch profitability.

It was within the top five among the 100 largest companies in each of three time periods covered by the U.S. Banker survey—the only company to achieve that feat. Its return on average assets is consistently in the mid-20% range, and its per-share earnings have been growing by more than 30% a year, on average.

Even while other credit card companies have been suffering from slow growth, Capital One has been growing at a rapid clip. Per-share earnings rose 30% last year, a 34% gain over the past three years, and 28.7% over the past five. And that growth was not a result of acquisitions. All of it was internal.

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