Providian Corp. has a reputation for guarding its privacy, but an extra $3 billion in its pocket could quickly thrust it into the limelight.

The Louisville, Ky., financial services company is reportedly seeking a buyer for its disappointing insurance operations so that it can focus on its fast-growing banking business.

Analysts believe Providian would sink the proceeds, estimated to be worth as much as $3 billion, into its credit card business. Now ranked 15th, Providian could move ahead of a number of banks, including First Union, Wells Fargo, and NationsBank, with a sizable acquisition.

Beefing up the card operation makes sense, analysts say, because it has become the company's greatest success story, while the insurance operations have performed below expectations for several years. Providian, formerly Capital Holding, started out as a regional life insurer but diversified over the past decade.

In a strange twist, Providian considered selling its banking unit several years ago because of regulatory restraints, said analysts.

Over the past year, Providian's credit card receivables have grown 50%, which far exceeds the industry average of 12%, according to RAM Research Group, Frederick, Md.

At the end of the third quarter, Providian's receivables were $6.3 billion, up $2.1 billion from the same period a year ago, the research firm said.

Providian Bancorp, the San Francisco-based banking unit, also provides home equity lines of credit, consumer loans, and deposit products, but the growth of the card business surpasses the other lines.

Behind much of the card unit's success is Shailesh J. Mehta, who joined the bank in 1986 when Capital Holding was just mapping its plans.

In 1994, Providian's chairman, Irving W. Bailey 2d, promoted Mr. Mehta to president and chief operating officer of the parent.

Mr. Mehta, 47, was charged with bringing to the insurance units the kind of target marketing and data base expertise that drives the card business.

Providian, which focuses both its insurance and banking strategies on low- to middle-income market segments, has been especially successful with secured credit cards, which require a deposit to cover the credit line. It among the top five issuer of these cards, which appeal to people needing to establish or reestablish a credit rating.

Providian Bancorp is also noted for being tops in profitability in the card industry, though its status as an insurer's subsidiary leaves it off most lists of credit card specialists like Capital One Financial Corp. and MBNA Corp.

Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Moshe Orenbuch compares Providian's strategy to that of Capital One, the ninth-largest card issuer, which focuses more on account profitability than number of accounts.

"Given its complete focus on the (credit card) business, I think Providian would want to get bigger," said Stuart J. Shaw, a Branche Research Group insurance analyst. Mr. Shaw says Providian will either acquire a credit card company or a card portfolio if it sells its insurance business.

Another insurance provider, Prudential Insurance Company of America, has taken the opposite path from Providian. The firm's Atlanta banking operation, Prudential Bank and Trust Co., said last week it will sell $1.1 billion of card loans.

The market for acquiring a card portfolio has never been better.

According to an annual survey conducted by Robert K. Hammer, an investment banker who specializes in such transactions, $7.1 billion of card receivables were bought and sold this year compared with $910 million last year.

Meanwhile, as Providian considers its options, some industry experts believe it could attract unwanted attention.

Providian already has crossed the radar screens of many consumer groups, who accused the company of misleading consumers with "bait and switch" promotions.

"Their name seems to pop up an awful lot with the complaints on the consumer side," said Robert B. McKinley, president of RAM Research Group.

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