Signet Banking Corp. has announced that chief executive Malcolm S. McDonald assumed the additional post of chairman on Jan. 1, replacing Robert M. Freeman, who retired at yearend.

The bank also named T. Gaylon Layfield 3d as president and chief operating officer.

Both Mr. McDonald, 58, and Mr. Layfield, 51, assumed their new titles as the final step in a series of moves over the last year aimed at smoothing the departure of Mr. Freeman, 55, who announced his retirement in early 1996 after 25 years with the company. He will continue to serve on the Signet board.

The first step in the transition came in May when Mr. Freeman handed over his chief executive title to then-president McDonald.

At that time, Mr. Layfield, who had been a senior executive vice president in charge of consumer banking, was named vice-chairman and chief operating officer.

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