Washington Mutual Inc. has tapped Associates First Capital Corp. to launch and run a comprehensive credit card program.

Associates, the Dallas-based finance company that was spun out last April from Ford Motor Co., is calling the arrangement "the largest agent bank program ever in the credit card industry."

Associates will market credit cards to about four million Washington Mutual customers, the companies said.

Products ranging from secured to platinum cards will be offered under Washington Mutual's name through more than 800 of the thrift's branches in California, Florida, and Texas.

The receivables will be managed by Associates, which counts as one of its specialties issuing private-label cards for oil companies and other retailers. Associates said it is looking for more deals like this one.

"There is consolidation going on in the card business," said Joseph Scarpinato, senior executive vice president of credit card operations at Associates. "As some of these midsize banks look at their various alternatives, we see a strategy of lining ourselves up with these institutions."

Several other card companies are looking at the agent market. Industry executives said Associates is in a good position to pick up a portion of this business.

"They will absolutely go after other thrift agreements," said Michael Auriemma, president of Auriemma Consulting in Westbury, N.Y. Associates is an "aggressive player-when they gear up to do something, they do it in a big way."

Mr. Auriemma said new agent arrangements have been relatively scarce, but the agreement between Associates and Washington Mutual may signify "the beginning of a trend."

"You'll see bigger and bigger deals as larger and midsize issuers can't compete on their own," he said.

Washington Mutual has been on an acquisition spree, buying 23 companies in the past 15 years. Its latest were the big California thrift companies H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Irwindale, and Great Western Financial Corp. of Chatsworth.

Seattle-based Washington Mutual was looking to consolidate the various credit card programs it had amassed in that process, Mr. Scarpinato said in an interview.

Deanna W. Oppenheimer, executive vice president of consumer banking at Washington Mutual, said the agent agreement "will not only allow Washington Mutual to enhance our product and service offerings to our customers, but will also provide the potential to increase fee income.

Keith W. Hughes, chairman and chief executive officer of Associates, said, "The Washington Mutual partnership significantly enhances our solid position in the highly competitive credit card industry and reflects our commitment to expanding this business."

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