David J. Vitale has suffered some hard knocks this year, but Banc One Corp.'s merger with First Chicago NBD Corp. would not be one of them.

While he was laboring to turn around First Chicago's corporate bank, a management coup at Sallie Mae ousted Mr. Vitale from his longtime seat on the board of the student lending agency.

But after last month's announcement of the big Midwest merger deal, Mr. Vitale was one of the handful of executives assured a top post in the combined $230 billion-asset company.

The 51-year-old banker would be vice chairman of the new Banc One, in charge of corporate banking products, domestic and international corporate markets, and middle-market lending.

Industry observers said it was no surprise that Mr. Vitale got this assignment.

"He brings extraordinary intellect and experience, with particular emphasis on global money markets," said Richard Hartnack, a former First Chicago executive vice president who is now vice chairman of Union Bank of California.

Mr. Vitale's strengths are in areas where Banc One has not been especially powerful. Banc One chairman John B. McCoy, who is slated to run the new entity, has been focused on retail banking and small and midsize businesses.

A First Chicago vice chairman since 1993, Mr. Vitale joined the company's principal subsidiary in 1968 through a program to attract liberal arts graduates from schools like Harvard University, where he majored in history and economics. He later received a master's degree in business from the University of Chicago.

Mr. Vitale is the highest-ranking First Chicago executive to survive the company's 1995 merger with NBD Bancorp of Detroit.

He is regarded as the quintessential highbrow banker, a perhaps complementary contrast to Mr. McCoy, with his folksy, down-home image.

"Both these guys are at the top of their game," said John Rau, a veteran Chicago banker who is president and chief executive officer of Chicago Title and Trust Co. Mr. McCoy "is as good as it gets on the strategy side, and David is as good as it gets on the financial markets and corporate markets side."

Mr. Vitale is "clearly one of a number of people who are going to make this merger work," Mr. Rau added.

One of the qualities Mr. Vitale would bring to the new Banc One is an ability to take sophisticated products in cash management, derivatives, and foreign currency down to the middle market.

The new Banc One would have more business customers with $150 million to $500 million of annual sales than any other U.S. banking company. And it would be fourth-largest in serving companies with yearly revenues above $500 million.

Mr. Vitale's reconfigured corporate bank makes a significant contribution to that stature. He has brought a lackluster return on equity up into double digits in the past year.

"First Chicago people had this attitude that they could be a money- center bank in the Midwest and offer the same products that New York City banks offered to their large corporate customers," said Joseph Duwan, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Thanks primarily to Mr. Vitale, "they've stepped away from that strategy" and toward the middle market, Mr. Duwan added.

Given his high rank in the new management structure, might Mr. Vitale covet Mr. McCoy's job? People who know him doubt it.

Though Mr. Vitale is seen as ambitious, he would not be the type of banker to quit if passed over as Mr. McCoy's successor.

"David is one of those guys who does the job better than anyone else," said Mr. Hartnack. "I don't see him lying awake at night stewing." u

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