Having led the credit card industry down a path of extraordinary profitability, John Tolleson and First USA Inc. are changing the game plan. Dallas-based First USA, one of the handful of highly specialized "monoline" companies that reshaped the bank card business this decade, is diversifying.

The No. 4 U.S. card issuer, with more than $18 billion of outstandings, is also the third-largest processor of card transactions for retailers. It raised $141 million last March in the partial spinoff of its merchant processing subsidiary, First USA Paymentech.

Paymentech acquired Gensar Holdings in August for $170 million and claims a 40% share of the catalogue market.

Also this year, First USA chartered a thrift, First USA Savings Bank, which can be a vehicle for installment, home equity, and auto loans, insurance, and "virtual banking" on-line.

"We feel we have the distribution channels in place to offer excellent products at very low cost," Mr. Tolleson, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, said in a recent interview. "We will do it without the cost of a branch infrastructure."

The other monolines have gotten the bug. Capital One Financial Corp. chartered a thrift and is marketing cellular phone services. Advanta Corp. formed a subsidiary, Advanta Information Systems, and owns a computer dating service. MBNA Corp. has begun offering a wide range of insurance services.

"The monoline companies," Mr. Tolleson said, "have an enormous advantage in that they are operating with a very low cost structure."

Going into 1996, First USA set the pace in growth. Receivables were up 80% over three years, said a report by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Moshe Orenbuch.

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