Prudential Bank and Trust Co., Atlanta, plans to lop off nearly all of its credit card portfolio.

The 31st-largest MasterCard and Visa issuer said it will sell $1.1 billion of its $1.6 billion card portfolio, which will knock it from the top 50.

The bulk of the balances to be sold come from customers who don't buy insurance from the bank's parent company, Prudential Insurance Company of America.

"This new business direction will allow the bank to leverage its strengths for the benefit of Prudential," said Jean Hamilton, president of Prudential Diversified Group, which oversees the bank. One of Prudential's major goals is to make it attractive for customers to own many Prudential products, she added.

The card accounts in the $500 million remainder of the portfolio will include Prudential employees and their families plus cardholders from cobranding deals the bank has signed. The cards will be rename Prudential Relationship cards.

Prudential probably experienced inconsistency in that segment of the portfolio, said Robert Hammer, president of R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

"Volatility has existed for all of us who have gone outside our core territories to expand," he said. "It's a prudent business decision to divest the most volatile piece of their business. In this case, it just happens that it is a large piece."

Four years ago, Prudential Bank and Trust Co. embarked on a national direct-mail campaign to entice new customers. The bank also bought small portfolios from other issuers. Since then, its card portfolio increased from 200,000 to 1.7 million accounts by the end of the third quarter 1996.

"Credit cards can be used as instigators and lead to the ability to cross-sell, but I'm not sure Prudential targeted customers who had the propensity to buy insurance," said Frank Caruana, director of marketing systems for Danielian Consulting Group in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Mr. Hammer said that it was better to divest that piece of the portfolio and concentrate on core business.

Prudential's proposed centralized approach to marketing "is the right move," said Mr. Caruana.

"Prudential can develop rebate structures, like savings bonds, that relate to their customer base and augment those offerings with other Prudential products," he said.

Prudential's cobranded card with Bell South will be retained, a spokeswoman said. So will the Visa small business card from Bell South Telecommunications Inc.

"Issuers have become more sophisticated with portfolio segmentation and understanding the various pieces of the portfolio as opposed to the total," Mr. Hammer said.

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