Being promoted to chief operating officer at Contel ASC last month was no big surprise for John Mattingly. The newly created post had been earmarked for the 40-year-old executive since 1988, Contel ASC President A.W. Perigard said.

The shocker came days after the appointment, on July 13, when Contel Corp., the parent company of the Rockville-based maker of satellite communications equipment, announced plans for a $6 billion merger with communications giant GTE Corp.

Now, no one knows what the future holds for Contel ASC or its first chief operating officer.

Industry analysts and company officials said Atlanta-based Contel's merger discussions with GTE are in the early stages and have not yet focused on the future of small subsidiaries such as Contel ASC, which expects gross revenue of $180 million this year, up from $140 million in 1989.

But the analysts also noted that Contel ASC may be vulnerable during the merger since it has traditionally been a money-loser for its corporate parent. "A unit that is unprofitable is a unit that is going to be in the eye of any manager," said Marianne Bye, first vice president at Shearson Bros. "The question is whether there is a lot of potential."

Contel Corp. officials would not comment on earnings for Contel ASC because the company reports the subsidiary's earnings only as part of its information systems sector, which logged a $20 million operating loss in 1989. But Bye, who follows Contel Corp. closely, said most of that loss comes from ASC.

Perigard speculated that GTE may merge Contel ASC with its own McLean-based satellite systems subsidiary, and predicted that Mattingly would stay on the executive fast track when the merger is completed.

"He's one of the most talented guys I've met in this industry," Perigard said. "We've just kept giving him big bites of responsibility, and so far we haven't stuck anything in his mouth that he hasn't digested and done a wonderful job with."

Mattingly came to Contel ASC in 1982, after working in the engineering divisions of McDonnell Douglas Corp., the Naval Air Systems Command and TRW's Defense and Space Systems Group.

As chief operating officer, he now directs Contel ASC's product development, manufacturing, sales and service departments. Eight of the company's 11 vice presidents report to Mattingly, who is the only Contel ASC executive who reports directly to Perigard.

"For a business our size {800 employees}, we do a lot of different things," Mattingly said, adding that the restructuring will enable Perigard "to look at the broader picture and strategy of our company."

Mattingly said his top priorities are making Contel ASC a more efficient provider of services to domestic and international customers and seeking more markets for the information transmission services it produces. "There are opportunities for us in all parts of the world," he said. "And we have sales efforts going on in each one of them."

As for the merger, both Mattingly and Perigard said their goal was to come out "with the best merged company possible." Mattingly said the companies were about to form a transition team and added, "I'll be part of it."