Meet Arkadi Kuhlmann, the man behind ING DIRECT

The ING DIRECT café on Kalakaua Avenue is buzzing with grand-opening ferver. It’s a bright Sunday afternoon, and the 9,500-square-foot space is teeming with smiling, aloha-shirted employees who busily create lattes as camera crews scurry about with press coordinators to make sure Hawaii’s first ING DIRECT café is blessed and opened without incident.

Amidst the chaos, one man quietly enters the room and commands everyone’s attention. However, all eyes aren’t on him because he’s the famed Arkadi Kuhlmann, CEO and founder of ING DIRECT. Rather, all eyes are focused on a high-powered executive who has orange ING DIRECT buttons placed over his eyelids, grinning for a camera like finance’s irrepressible court jester.

“This will look great!” he says with a mischievous smirk. The entire room can’t help but laugh, cringe and wonder what in the world Kuhlmann is up to.

And ironically, when Kuhlmann spearheaded ING DIRECT in Canada back in 1996, the banking world laughed, cringed and similarly questioned his antics, too. No branches, no checkbooks, no ATMs, one-on-one personalized service and higher interest rates? The retail finance industry was incredulous that such a premise would ever succeed.

It seems quite fitting, then, that someone as irreverent as Kuhlmann headed up this enterprise. Since then, he has seen the online-only ING DIRECT bank through to becoming, according to his book The Orange Code, the 21st largest bank in the U.S., managing the assets of more than 7 million customers in the country.

“We believe in simplicity and straightforwardness,” Kuhl-mann says. “We want to make the use and buying of retail financial products simple and easy, encouraging Americans to save.”

Kuhlmann’s passion for financial service and proactivity can be traced through the background story that led him to his current position at ING DIRECT. The 61-year-old grew up in Toronto and earned an Honors B.A. in business administration and an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. He found early work as a university professor and soccer coach, but was ultimately led to other ventures that intertwined his two main life interests.

“My passion is centered around technology and marketing,” Kuhlmann says. This allowed him to “follow the bread crumbs the Lord put in front of me” to executive roles at North American Trust, Deak International Inc. and the Royal Bank of Canada.

Technology and marketing may have solidified finance as Kuhlmann’s industry of choice, but it was his dedication to building things from scratch and putting people first that made him connect with ING, the bank’s Dutch parent company. ING’s cafes were spawned after ING’s first few customers would drive all the way to Canada to meet Kuhlmann, despite all of the bank’s transactions being done by phone and online. For all their time, Kuhlmann would offer each customer a cup of coffee at the office.

“I couldn’t keep giving away these cups of coffee for free,” he says. “So the idea evolved for us to start an ING cafe. I found that people need a cornerstone – if they have a (banking) problem, they need a physical place to go to.”

Out of that conscientiousness was born the ING bastions of barista bankers, now located internationally. But helping customers “save to spend” and manage mortgages wisely isn’t all that Kuhlmann relays through the ING brand. The affectionately named “rebel with a cause” also fights for customers’ identity protection and engages in community service initiatives. ING DIRECT recently donated backpacks and school supplies to Hawaii’s Child and Family Service program, and is offering the Kalakaua Avenue cafe for nonprofits to use as meeting rooms.

“We only want to do good,” says Kuhlmann, who fittingly cites figures like Nelson Mandela and Virgin Records’ Richard Branson as his role models. “We want to change the way the industry works and influence people.”

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