FirstPlus Financial Group Inc., the leader in the booming high-loan-to- value business, said it has begun discussions with potential acquirers.
The Dallas company, known for its television commercials featuring Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, said that current market conditions had prompted the sale.
"Weak capital markets have made tough sledding" for finance companies, said Daniel Phillips, chairman and chief executive.
FirstPlus is the fifth specialty finance company to put itself on the block in the past 12 months.
Nonbank lenders have faced a cash crunch since late last year, when earnings restatements at several companies scared equity investors.
FirstPlus stock closed at $22.75 a share Monday, down more than 60% from its 52-week high of $60.125 on Oct. 17. The company's stock traded up $4.187 on the announcement, which came after the close Monday.
Most analysts estimated that the purchase price could be from $30 to $45 a share, or $1.1 billion to $1.7 billion, though a small minority are predicting as much as $50 a share.
To make the business grow and to achieve balance sheet and diversification objectives, it is "strategically important" that FirstPlus seek a partner with "synergistic financial products and the equity necessary to reduce our dependence on securitizations," Mr. Phillips said. He is hoping for a buyer with a "strong balance sheet, strong franchise value, and currency with an upside in it," he said.
Interested parties include GE Capital Corp., MBNA Corp., a "top 10" bank, and a large insurance company, according to one analyst. FirstPlus has held informal discussions with several possible buyers, the company said. Bear, Stearns & Co. and Carpenter & Associates have been retained as investment bankers.
A sale is expected in the next 30 to 45 days. "Knowing FirstPlus, I don't think they are going to drag their feet," said Jennifer Scutti, analyst with Prudential Securities.
FirstPlus is not facing capital problems and has $2 billion available to lend, the company said.
It has delivered on its production numbers, expanded its distribution channels, and virtually eliminated its reliance on a controversial accounting method, Ms. Scutti said, but its stock never got the valuation for the "good things" that it was doing.
FirstPlus has more franchise value than any other independent specialty finance company, said Reilly Tierney, an analyst at Fox-Pitt, Kelton, New York.
But logical buyers like banks and thrifts are already crippled by falling market capitalization, Mr. Tierney said. He predicted an "untraditional buyer" would pick up FirstPlus.