A Northern California subprime card specialist has left wine country for Las Vegas.

First National Bank of Marin said the legal environment in California was no longer conducive to its operations. The $137 million-asset bank moved Nov. 4 but does not plan to change its name.

"Nevada has a more pro-credit-card environment," said Jonathan Maffei, president and chief executive officer. "This puts us on an even playing field."

Mr. Maffei said the bank was hamstrung by California's cap on delinquency and over-limit fees. In California, for example, customers may be charged only $15 after an account is 15 days delinquent. In Nevada the bank may charge $25 to $29, Mr. Maffei said.

The vast majority of the 400 employees already worked in Las Vegas, at the processing center First National opened there in September 1995. Mr. Maffei and other senior-level executives have now joined them there.

Also this month, First National, which has issued a half-million credit cards, will launch an advertising campaign to boost its business. A 30- minute television infomercial will first be broadcast nationwide on Friday.

The ad will introduce the bank's Take Charge credit card product, which offers credit lines ranging from $200 to $600 at a 19.8% interest rate. The cards are secured by a $200 savings account.

First National, founded in 1984, has never operated as a typical community bank.

Its holding comany, Marin National Bancorp, is owned by Kjell Qvale and his family. Mr. Qvale owns a luxury car dealership in San Francisco.

In 1993 the bank barely escaped a federal takeover after losses in credit-enhanced auto loans, secured credit cards, and lifetime reverse mortgages. (The last is a non-cash-flow-product; the mortgage is paid back when the borrower dies and the home is sold.)

Those products have been phased out since 1996, however, and now the bank's only business is subprime credit cards.

First National made $6.6 million in 1997, after losing $5.6 million in 1996. This year's profits are expected to come in at $5 million.

"The bank has had its struggles," Mr. Maffei said. "Our story is similar to that of our customers."

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