Fleet Financial Group said Tuesday it had agreed to buy the $10.5 billion credit card portfolio of Advanta Corp., calling the deal a "once in a lifetime" opportunity.
Fleet, ending months of speculation about Advanta, agreed to pay a premium of $500 million, or about 4.5% of the portfolio's expected size at yearend.
Fleet said it would merge Advanta's card business with its own, creating the ninth-largest issuer of credit cards, with $14 billion of receivables. Fleet is now No. 26, according to The Nilson Report newsletter.
The deal underscores the rapid consolidation of the credit card industry and marks Boston-based Fleet's third deal in two months for a specialized financial company. Earlier it agreed to buy Columbia Management Co., an investment manager, and Quick & Reilly Group, the discount brokerage.
Fleet plans to hire "a major player in the business" to be chief executive officer of the combined card units, said H. Jay Sarles, Fleet's vice chairman.
Advanta's highly regarded CEO, Alex W. "Pete" Hart, resigned Tuesday.
Advanta, a pioneer in computer-based marketing of credit cards, announced in March that it had retained merger specialist BT Wolfensohn & Co. to explore strategic options. National Australia Bank was long thought to be the main suitor, but Fleet's interest became evident in recent weeks.
"There aren't going to be many of these once in a lifetime opportunities," Mr. Sarles said.
Last week AT&T Universal Card Services and Bank of New York announced plans to sell their card businesses. Chase is acquiring Bank of New York's $4 billion portfolio, and AT&T is waiting for a buyer.
"We have competed for 15 years very successfully," said Dennis Alter, chairman of Advanta's board, "and we could continue to do so. We don't have to do this transaction because we have returned to our former profitability, but there is a time when it is appropriate to consider other alternatives."
Mr. Alter, who will be chief executive of Advanta's remaining businesses-mortgages and leasing-said the company's decision to get out of the card business had nothing to do with a $20 million loss in the first quarter. "This has to do with timing and the stunning consolidation of the card industry," he said.
Outsiders take a different view.
"Their problem was that they grew rapidly in the first half of last year and had lousy credit quality," said Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Moshe Orenbuch.
Advanta's first-quarter loss reflected a spike in its card delinquencies and chargeoffs, coupled with a slowing of the number of accounts that revolved.
Industry observers believe that Fleet will leverage Advanta's marketing expertise to help it sell other financial services. Fleet is acquiring a "direct marketing powerhouse," said David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report.
Fleet said about 1,900 Advanta employees in Spring House and Horsham, Pa., will be hired and will remain in Pennsylvania. Fleet is also acquiring all technology and information management, direct marketing and new product development, and treasury finance operations.