Providian Financial Corp. said Thursday that it agreed to purchase GetSmart, an Internet service that matches consumers with loan products, for $33 million in cash.
Providian, a San Francisco credit card lending specialist, described the deal as the centerpiece of a new electronic commerce division. It agreed to buy WebCard from H&R Block last month and has been offering on-line deposit products on its own Web site.
The deal for GetSmart was "another opportunity for us to extend our presence and customer contact" on the Internet, said Providian senior vice president James Rowe, who has been named chief executive officer of GetSmart.com and head of the e-commerce division.
GetSmart of Burlingame, Calif., was created two and a half years ago by William Fisher, a former Wells Fargo & Co. executive vice president. He said he set out to create an independent marketplace where loan seekers could plug in their particulars and get back a list of appropriate offers from various banks, then apply for them on-line.
GetSmart started with credit cards and moved into mortgage, auto, and student loans, debt consolidation, and business financing. More than 100 lenders signed up to participate, including American Express Co.
Eight million people visited the site last year, and 430,000 applied for loans through it, Mr. Fisher said.
GetSmart also made an advertising deal with America Online and attracted a high-profile board of directors that includes Intuit Inc. co-founder Tom Proulx and Alex W. "Pete" Hart, the former CEO of Advanta Corp. and MasterCard International.
The board has approved the sale, Get-Smart said Thursday, and it is expected to close within a week or two.
Mr. Fisher said he will not play a role after that and intends to "go build another franchise" in the on-line world.
Providian would regard GetSmart as a "stand-alone" business that offers loans from many companies, even those that compete directly with the parent, Mr. Rowe said. "We want to be very careful to preserve the unbiased approach" of GetSmart, he said. "It's very important to us that the lender relationships remain strong."
Providian was attracted by GetSmart's heavy traffic and the information the company gathers about people who submit information. Mr. Rowe said the data base would yield a rich lode of customer leads.
"There are some customers who complete applications who ultimately don't get a loan product from the lenders," Mr. Rowe said. "Providian has a very broad product portfolio that can be used to fill those gaps without alienating the existing lender base."
Providian has not offered its products through GetSmart but will consider doing so in the future, Mr. Rowe said. "You can envision perhaps deposit products, which are not currently offered" on GetSmart but are available through Providian's Web site.
Some electronic commerce analysts expect borrowers over time will stop waiting for credit offers in the mail and will instead shop for loans on the Internet. The number of such services continues to grow, with multilender marketplaces like E-loan and Intuit's Quicken.com site becoming more common.
"Lenders of all types are looking increasingly toward the Internet as a big part of their future," Mr. Fisher said. "They're all faced at some point with a buy-or-build decision."
Scott Smith, an electronic commerce expert at Current Analysis of Sterling, Va., said he viewed Providian's purchase as part of a "mad rush" for Internet companies among "financial institutions that want to reestablish their positions vis-a-vis competitors."
A recent report by Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., said the on- line credit market "remains insignificant today," but lending executives express "a sense of urgency about their on-line efforts."
Even so, James P. Punishill, a Forrester analyst and an author of the report, said he is "not a big fan of GetSmart" and thinks "there are better sites out there."
Mr. Punishill said, "To me, it's a pretty clunky, unattractive site, and it requires an awful lot of input to get anything out of it."
The $33 million price tag "seems expensive," he said.
"It's a really interesting play for Providian," Mr. Punishill said. "I think this is their way of having a nice, open finance kind of e-commerce play. But if they keep it objective, I can't figure out how Providian is going to make any money from it."
Providian's stock rose more than 7 cents Thursday, to $100.5625.
David Hochstim, an analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co., said Providian has "demonstrated considerable success in everything they've done" and electronic commerce is "most likely to grow into a big business." He called the GetSmart deal a "logical next step" for the company.
Mr. Rowe, 40, has spent five years at Providian, most recently running its fee-based business. He said the electronic commerce efforts, barely more than a year old, have garnered $100 million in Internet deposits, including on-line money market accounts.
"It is a real competitive advantage for us to be able to put forth both the asset and deposit side of an electronic bank on the Net," Mr. Rowe said.
Providian is among a handful of companies offering instant decisions on card applications at its Web site, he said, and further enhancements are planned. "The opportunity for us here is extraordinary," Mr. Rowe said.