Merlin R. Gackle, the president of Invest Financial Corp. for the past year, is becoming chairman and chief executive as well, the Tampa, Fla., company announced.

In his new capacity, Mr. Gackle will report to James R. Boris, executive vice president of Kemper Corp., Invest's parent company.

Invest is a leading distributor of annuities, mutual funds, and insurance products through more that 240 banks, thrifts, and credit unions.

Mr. Gackle, 47, succeeds Donald F. Eller, who resigned his post at the investment marketing firm to return to Chicago.

Mr. Eller had been appointed to the position only a year ago, to fill in a gap left by the sudden dismissal of Mark D. Olson in November 1993. Mr. Gackle was elevated to the president's post at that time.

Reached by phone at home in Chicago, Mr. Eller said he left of his own choice so he could spend more time with his family. He praised Mr. Gackle by saying he "will do a really good job" and that he himself recommended the promotion.

Mr. Eller declined to discuss his professional plans, but he did not dismiss the possibility of working for Kemper in a different capacity.

Invest insiders said they weren't surprised by Mr. Gackle's appointment.

Mr. Gackle has continued to move up the ranks ever since he joined Invest five years ago. Hired as executive vice president and director of sales, he is credited with attracting new bank clients, and streamlining the company, which in turn helped Invest make a profit last year.

"He's been running the company for two years," said Bradley S. Grubb, senior vice president and director of OutSource Services, an Invest unit. "He's earned the right."

Others familiar with the company agree. Mr. Gackle "seems to be pulling the company in the right direction,"said Eli Neusner, a consultant with Cerulli Associates, Boston. "This is just the official approval."

Though Kemper has had some well-publicized troubles recently, Invest is one of the company's better-performing units, Mr. Neusner said.

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