Equifax Inc. is bringing its credit card processing operations to Europe.

The Atlanta-based company said its first major push is in the United Kingdom, where it formed a joint venture with a British company, Sears Financial Services Ltd.

Equifax owns 51% of the venture, which has yet to be named. It is seen as a launching pad into continental Europe, said Lee A. Kennedy, executive vice president and group executive payment services of Equifax.

He said "card processing has not been a priority in the past, but it will be in the future" for Equifax as it further diversifies from its credit bureau heritage.

Sears Financial Services-no relation to Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the United States-is a credit card processor affiliated with a retailing organization that includes the Selfridges, Wallis, and Adams Childrenswear chains.

The Equifax-Sears joint venture, expected to be up and running by the end of 1999, initially will provide processing for these stores and some others. The company will handle Visa, MasterCard, retail card, and debit card accounts in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Equifax sells credit card processing software in 31 countries and hopes to cross-sell its card processing service to companies that already use the software. It also expects to draw on its relationships with companies in 17 countries that use its credit bureau services, Mr. Kennedy said.

In December, Equifax joined with Transaction Technologies Ltd. to launch a card processing business in India, Equifax Venture Infotek.

Other such ventures are in the offing, including another Asian partnership that will be announced shortly, Mr. Kennedy said.

The Sears venture is larger than the one in India. Sears, in Birmingham, England, already handles the processing for 1.5 million merchant credit cards in the United Kingdom, but has no bank cards yet. A First Data Corp. subsidiary, First Data Resources Ltd., has a strong U.K. banking foothold, and credit bureau competitor Experian Inc. also has a card processing business there.

First Data Resources "may be the largest processor in the country, but we believe the market is big enough for both of us," Mr. Kennedy said.

Between its outsourcing service and its software, which tends to be used by banks doing in-house card processing, Equifax aims to become a global card technology force going well beyond its current U.S. business. Through a contract with the Independent Bankers Association of America and relationships with some 4,000 credit unions, it handles 21 million accounts, mostly at small institutions.

To lead the international push, Equifax has hired Thomas R. Malin, the former executive vice president and general manager of card products at Electronic Data Systems Corp. Mr. Malin reports to Mr. Kennedy.

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