In a surprising step, Signet Banking Corp. chairman and CEO Robert M. Freeman said he will retire at the end of next year - at the relatively young age of 55.

Mr. Freeman had guided Signet's transition from an also-ran corporate bank into a pioneer in the use of direct-mail marketing to consumers. Although that transition is still incomplete, he said Tuesday, he wished to retire "at an age when I can enjoy other interests."

Analysts who follow the company expressed confidence the move does not portend any major strategic shifts at the Richmond-based bank. "By and large, Bob has let everyone else run the show" at Signet, said PaineWebber Inc.'s Thomas D. McCandless. "He's just guided them in the right direction."

Mr. Freeman is scheduled to hand over his CEO reins next April to president and chief operating officer Malcolm S. McDonald who, at age 57, is three years older than Mr. Freeman. Mr. McDonald joined Signet in 1970.

Other members of the management team moving up in Mr. Freeman's wake are senior executive vice president T. Gaylon Layfield 3d, to vice chairman and chief operating officer, and chief financial officer Wallace B. Millner 3d, to vice chairman. Both will be elected to Signet's board next year.

Mr. McDonald and Mr. Layfield, who will replace Mr. McDonald as president, have both been closely associated with Signet's use of information-based technology, first in credit cards and now in consumer and corporate lending.

"What the board was saying was that they supported the initiatives that Mr. Freeman had started and they expected these guys to carry it through," said Merrill Ross, with Wheat First Butcher Singer Inc.

Mr. Freeman, who will celebrate 25 years with the bank in 1996, said he plans to stay active in civic affairs and retain his position on several corporate boards.

"I enjoy getting away on my boat, I want to get back into vegetable gardening, just lots and lots of things that get passed over when you're in the traces," Mr. Freeman said in a telephone interview.

Dean Witter analyst Anthony R. Davis said the retirement plans fit in with what he had observed of Mr. Freeman's personality over the years. "Relative to a lot of other bankers, I think his priorities are probably a little better balanced," Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Freeman, a Richmond native, joined Signet in 1971 after eight years with Wachovia Corp. He advanced to president of the holding company in 1987, CEO in 1989, and chairman in 1990, when Mr. McDonald was also named president.

Mr. Freeman's ascension to the top post coincided with a brutal real estate recession that depressed earnings at Signet and most other major Virginia banks for several years. Signet's stock price fell as low as $8 a share in 1991 but recovered strongly in recent years as Mr. Freeman used database marketing and direct-mail techniques to build Signet's credit-card portfolio into a national power.

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