CHICAGO - First Chicago Corp. on Monday promoted Leo F. Mullin to the company's No. 2 post, putting him in line to succeed Richard L. Thomas as chairman and chief executive.

The announcement apparently decides a horse race among four top executives and addresses concerns on Wall Street about who would take the reins when Mr. Thomas, now 62, retires in April 1996.

"If everything proceeds successfully, one would have to conclude that Leo would be in a very strong position" to become First Chicago's top officer, said Mr. Thomas in an interview.

First Chicago, the nation's 10th-largest bank company, also promoted David J. Vitale, a 25-year veteran, to the new post of vice chairman. Mr. Vitale, 47, will continue to head corporate and institutional banking.

Sending a Message

Mr. Mullin, 50, was named president, succeeding Mr. Thomas. He was also named to the vacant post of chief operating officer.

His anointment sends a message about the strategic direction of First Chicago, said Art Soter, a banking analyst with Morgan Stanley.

Mr. Mullin presides over credit cards, middle market and metropolitan retail banking operations. Those segments apparently have greater potential than First Chicago's sophisticated yet volatile corporate banking unit, said Mr. Soter.

Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Thomas emphasized that First Chicago's corporate banking unit had been overhauled and would get a continued supply of capital for product development. He said no one line of business would get a preference.

|Good Deal of Concern'

The appointments will help minimize the divisiveness that often surrounds succession contests, said another analyst, who asked not to be identified.

Four candidates had been vying to succeed Mr. Thomas, and "there was a good deal of concern in the market about internal politics at First Chicago," the analyst said.

Mr. Thomas acknowledged recent Wall Street concerns about succession plans at the $53 billion-asset company, and he indicated the promotion announcement's were accelerated somewhat in a move to reassure the market.

The executive said several additional appointments of lesser magnitude will follow.

In late trading on Monday, First Chicago's stock was unchanged at $44.75.

Sees Stance as Stronger

Some analysts have gone so far as to speculate that thin senior management ranks make First Chicago susceptible to a takeover. But Mr. Thomas rejected the notion, saying First Chicago's stance within a consolidating industry "has strengthened measurably."

Since his predecessor Barry Sullivan was ousted two years ago, Mr. Thomas has held the company's top posts. During that time, he overhauled the company, raised capital, shed problem assets, and boosted efficiency.

Along the way, Mr. Thomas established a policy committee that was seen as a proving ground for rising stars, including Mr. Mullin and Mr. Vitale.

Two other committee members were seen as candidates for the top job: W.G. Jurgensen, head of community banking, and J. Mikesell Thomas, cohead of corporate and institutional banking.

Will Continue to Head Unit

Mr. Mullin, 50, will retain his current duties as chairman of American National Corp., First Chicago's middle market banking unit.

He also will assume "senior management responsibility for all of First Chicago's other banking activities," the company said.

The executive, who has been at the bank 12 years, holds graduate and undergraduate degrees from Harvard University.

Mr. Vitaleholds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

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