Chase Manhattan Corp. didn't get to be one of the nation's biggest banking companies by being a shrinking violet.

But the money-center giant may have outdone itself when it announced this week that it aims to rank among the 10 largest mutual fund companies in 10 years.

In the dog-eat-dog mutual fund business, growth is seen as an absolute necessity. But onlookers said they didn't expect Chase - whose $6.5 billion in mutual fund assets place it 58th in the fund industry in one tally - to join the industry's behemoths anytime soon.

"It's a nice piece of bravado, and we're glad to see Americans beat the drums and thump their spears, but it's not as easy as that," said William B. Berger, chairman of Berger Associates, a $2.7 billion-asset fund company in Denver.

According to the Investment Company Institute, Chase's Vista funds are roughly one-eighth the size of the current occupant of 10th place in the fund industry - Dean Witter Discover & Co., which manages $56.9 billion in assets. The biggest mutual fund manager, Fidelity Investments, has $272.7 billion of assets.

While a big acquisition could move Chase up the rankings quickly, a senior executive virtually ruled such buys out for the foreseeable future, saying they're too expensive.

It isn't surprising that a big banking company would want to boost its mutual fund business. Managing fund assets is seen a potentially lucrative source of fees.

Indeed, Mellon Bank Corp. last year became the first - and, to date, the only - banking company to rank among the country's 10 largest mutual fund managers, when it bought Dreyfus Corp.

But bankers have complained that other big fund companies are currently too expensive.

Leonard M. Spalding Jr., chief of Chase's mutual fund subsidiary, told reporters at a briefing this week that he is value-conscious. He said Chase isn't looking to make any Dreyfus-sized acquisitions because there aren't any bargains out there. Instead, Chase is eyeing smaller mutual fund complexes, ranging from $2 billion to $4 billion of assets.

Indeed, Chase was one of the first banking companies to engineer a mutual fund acquisition, buying the $120 million-asset Olympus Funds in March of 1993.

The banking company's goal is to add $6 billion of assets through acquisitions by the end of 1997, Mr. Spalding said. He added that while Chase has two or three possible acquisitions under review now, no deals are imminent.

Chase is also hoping for strong sales. All told, Mr. Spalding said Chase aims to operate a $25-billion asset mutual fund family in three years. He declined to detail how Chase thinks it could go from there to the top 10.

But, like politicians promoting a balanced budget amendment, Chase executives aren't shy about stating their goal. Indeed, Chase emblazoned the phrase "10 in 10" on cotton golf shirts handed out this month to all 50 employees of its mutual fund unit and to reporters at the recent press briefing.

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