Matchmaking has a double meaning for Advanta Partners LP.
The affiliate of credit card and home equity specialist Advanta Corp. is on the prowl for consumer-oriented, information-intensive companies.
But Advanta Partners takes its mission especially literally: One of its equity positions is in a video dating service.
The investment in the franchising operation, Great Expectations Creative Management Inc., has raised eyebrows and some controversy among Advanta Corp. observers who think it is too far afield for a consumer lender.
But that seems to be one of the risks high-flying Advanta - the nation's 14th-largest card issuer - is willing to run as it blazes trails away from the beaten path.
Sixteen months since its inception, the limited partnership funded by Horsham, Pa.-based Advanta has spent $30 million of the $100 million allocated for investments over a three-year period.
Aside from Great Expectations, it has invested in two other firms that no one has quibbles with: HNC Software Inc. of San Diego and Innovative Services of America, Golden, Colo.
The former is a specialist in neural network technology, a form of artificial intelligence that banks and processors use to help detect money laundering, skimming, and other types of fraud.
Innovative Services handles in-bound telemarketing calls, such as customer complaints to Sears, Roebuck and Co., and compiles a data base that tracks purchasing habits.
Advanta Partners expects its investments to appreciate fivefold. Some may go public, others may be acquired by Advanta Corp., and still others may be held simply as investments.
"We are investors," said Anthony P. Brenner, senior managing director of Advanta Partners. "We don't run businesses."
In an interview in Advanta Partners' elegant New York offices, Mr. Brenner emphasized that the firm has the freedom to operate independently of its benefactor.
Although three of Advanta's top executives - Alex W. Hart, chief executive, Dennis Alter, chairman, and Richard Greenawalt chief operating officer - are directors of Advanta Partners, Mr. Brenner asserted, "we are focusing on non-Advanta activities."
Nevertheless, most industry observers and analysts assume Advanta Partners keeps its only investor in mind and places a priority on potential synergies.
"Advanta recognizes that products come and go," said Gary J. Gordon, a PaineWebber Inc. analyst. "If something in Advanta's arsenal isn't working, it wants to be able to turn to other things, to push a new product."
Indeed, Advanta executives have said their track record in credit cards and other consumer credit businesses does not preclude them from trying new things.
Mitchell L. Hollin, managing director of Advanta Partners, explained that it seeks out companies which complement Advanta Corp.'s data management strengths. But "we are looking for things that are outside the box that Advanta Corp. works in today," he added.
"Advanta Partners is an interesting way for Advanta to explore other long-term growth opportunities," said Joseph LaManna, an analyst with William Blair & Co.
Advanta Partners classifies investment opportunities in two ways: information services, including data base management, direct marketing, and consumer research; and financial services, such as transaction processing, specialty finance, outsourcing, and remote service delivery.
The three investments so far fall broadly into those categories, but Great Expectations Creative Management stands out. The video dating franchiser's mission is simply to bring people together.
While analysts generally praise Advanta Partners as a brainchild of creative business thinkers, at least one observer was skeptical about Great Expectations. This critic, who asked to remain anonymous, said the venture is too far removed from Advanta's core businesses.
The dating company also has had to dispel a regulatory cloud.
Last May, shortly before Advanta Partners made its investment, a Federal Trade Commission investigation uncovered some improper credit practices. The company and more than half its franchises were charged with violating the Truth-in-Lending Act in their disclosures of interest rates on financing of memberships, which ranged in price from $975 to $3,100.
The 23 franchises agreed to make refunds to affected consumers. The FTC estimated the total amount will likely exceed $200,000.
Mr. Brenner defended Great Expectations as "the ultimate information business" with "very attractive growth potential."
He pointed out that the FTC investigation occurred during the tenure of a management team that has since been replaced. He also said the disclosure problems were the fault of the franchises, not the franchiser.
However, an FTC attorney said the franchiser was at fault because it provided its franchises with improper disclosure forms.
Hoping to dispel the skepticism about the Great Expectations connection, Mr. Brenner said that as an investment of Advanta Partners it is distinct from Advanta Corp.
And yet, he said, Great Expectations shares the common thread that links all three companies the partnership has bought into: All are involved in consumer businesses and in the creating and manipulating of large data bases.