ATLANTA - First Financial Management Corp. said Monday that it had agreed to sell the consumer finance arm of its Georgia Federal Bank to a unit of Associates Corporation of North America.

Associates, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Co., agreed to pay $243 million in cash and "other considerations" for First Family Financial Services, which has $602 million in assets and 192 offices in eight southeastern states.

Speculation on Thrift's Sale

The announcement fueled speculation that First Financial Management, principally a data processing company, may be looking to sell Atlanta-based Georgia Federal. It has $4.5 billion in assets, making it the largest thrift in the state.

First Family is highly profitable, providing nearly half of Georgia Federal's 1991 net income of $34 million. But analysts said many banks that are potential acquirers of Georgia Federal would have difficulty, merging the consumer finance company into their own structures.

First Financial chairman and chief executive Patrick H. Thomas denied that he is looking to unload Georgia Federal, calling such talk "pure speculation."

First Union Corp., Charlotte, N.C., reportedly negotiated with First Financial about purchasing Georgia Federal earlier this year and is still considered a potential acquirer.

First Union sold its consumer finance subsidiary, Greenville, S.C.-based World Acceptance Corp., to its managers in a 1991 leveraged buyout. At that time, World Acceptance had $44.4 million in loans receivable and 172 offices in five states.

Good Marks for Deal

Analysts viewed the finance company sale as favorable for First Financial, because it can now concentrate on its bank data processing and credit card transaction-processing businesses. Banks and thrifts generally trade at lower stock price multiples than data processors.

Seiling First Family for $243 milion, Mr. Thomas would more than recoup the $235 million he spent buying Georgia Federal in 1989. Salomon Brothers Inc., in an August 1992 report, had estimated First Family's market value at $204.6 million, compared with only $143.6 million for the rest of Georgia Federal.

"From a strategic point of view, it made more sense to redeploy those [First Family] assets into our main-line business, "Mr. Thomas said.

Appealing Branch Network

Potential bank acquirers, however, would be more interested in Georgia Federal's 57 branches and $2.8 billion in deposits.

First Financial purchased Georgia Federal originally to protect its access to the Visa and MasterCard payment networks, which were trying to limit nonbanks' access to the business of handling payments for retail merchants. First Financial may no longer need such insurance.

But Mr. Thomas disagreed, pointing to a current lawsuit by Sears, Roebuck and Co. challenging Visa's refusal to accept Sears as a card-issuing member.

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