Arkadi Kuhlmann (born October 27, 1946) is a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, businessman, speaker, author, and artist. He is best known as a banking entrepreneur, having pioneered direct banking in North America when he launched and served as CEO of both ING Direct Canada and ING Direct USA. In July, 2012, Arkadi founded his sixth banking startup, ZenBanx, and is currently serving as its CEO.
The media have closely tracked Kuhlmann’s success over the years and have labeled him everything from the Steve Jobs of banking, to the CEO of Savings, to the bad boy of banking, and even, the rebel CEO with a bank.
Kuhlmann emigrated from Germany to Canada with his family when he was ten years old, and spent his childhood in the city of Toronto. He enjoyed outdoor activities and nature as a child, an inspiration that can be seen in his adult paintings. It was his mother, an accountant, who he credits with instilling an understanding and appreciation of money and savings.
Kuhlmann received an Honors B.A. in business administration along with an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) from the University of Western Ontario for his contributions to the world of business strategy.
Kuhlmann began his career as a business professor shortly after graduating from the University of Western Ontario. He soon gravitated to banking as an assistant director of the Institute of Canadian Bankers, and as a consultant for the banking industry.
During the years 1977-1984, Kuhlmann served as manager, assistant general manager, and then vicepresident of Royal Bank of Canada in its corporate cash management and commercial banking marketing divisions.
Kuhlmann served as president and CEO at Deak & Co. and Deak International from 1985-1993. Deak & Co. provided merchant and investment banking services. Deak International provided foreign exchange and precious metals trading and refining services. Kuhlmann reorganized Deak International’s operations, launching a revitalized company in April 1986, expanding the company from 52 to 192 branches worldwide, and from 350 to 1,500 employees; achieving revenues of $1B wholesale and $2.5B retail, with an income of $70M. Kuhlmann oversaw the successful divestiture of Deak International in 1990. Following the divestiture of Deak International to North American Life, Kuhlmann served as president of North American Trust until 1996.
Kuhlmann introduced the world to direct banking when he founded ING Direct Canada in 1996. He created the brand strategy, recruited the senior leadership team, and grew the bank from 1996 to 2000 serving as the bank’s president and CEO. He then repeated this process in 2000, when he founded ING Direct USA and led its growth to become the largest savings bank and number one direct bank in the United States, with more than $90B in deposits and 7.8M customers. As the bank’s chairman, president and CEO, Kuhlmann executed his vision to create a retail-focused bank that offered simple and easy-to-use savings, checking, mortgages, and investment products direct to consumers. His customer strategy led to fanatical loyalty, industry-leading customer promotion scores, and branded him affectionately as the ‘CEO of Savings.’
Kuhlmann’s vision was to make ING Direct the “Apple of banks”. As part of that strategy, he opened a series of one-of-a-kind cafés to serve as gathering places where people could get to know ING Direct and enjoy a cup of good coffee.
A fan of bottom-up leadership, culture is very important to Kuhlmann. He instituted an annual vote where he asked his staff to “re-elect” him as CEO. He went on to write his book titled, Rock Then Roll: The Secrets of Culture Driven Leadership, to better understand how culture plays a driving force in modern corporations.
During his time at ING Direct, he fueled his rebel persona by such initiatives as firing customers who asked for too many services, or took up too much of his employees’ time.
In late 2009, as a condition of its government bailout during the financial crisis, ING Groep, the parent company of ING Direct Canada and USA, and the largest Dutch financial-services firm, agreed on a restructuring plan with the European Commission. The restructuring plan mandated that ING Groep sell its North American online banking operations, which included ING Direct USA and Canada. On June 17, 2011, ING Groep agreed to sell ING Direct USA, and its seven million customers, to Capital One Financial for $9.2B. The Federal Reserve approved the sale on February 14, 2012 and Capital One completed its acquisition of ING Direct USA on February 17, 2012.
ING Direct Canada, founded by Kuhlmann in 1996, was purchased from ING Groep by Scotiabank for $3.13B in an acquisition announced on August 29, 2012.
Following the ING Direct USA acquisition, Kuhlmann stepped down as chairman and CEO.
Kuhlmann is currently developing his sixth bank, ZenBanx, Inc.™ (www.zenbanx.com), whose slogan is “Around the corner, around the world ™.”
In 2007, Ivey Business School honored Kuhlmann with the Ivey Distinguished Service Award for his lifetime dedication to the school. He has received other recognitions, including the ING Business Award - Revenue Growth Category in 2005, American Banker's Innovator of the Year in 2006, the Delaware Business Leader Award in 2006 and 2008, the Habitat for Humanity Leadership Award in 2007, the Netherlands American Foundation's Ambassador C. Howard Wilkins Jr. Award in 2009, and is the honorary commander of National Guard 512 Airlift Wing.
Kuhlmann has authored two books on business. The first, The Orange Code: How ING Direct Succeeded by Being a Rebel With a Cause, he co-authored with longtime collaborator, Bruce Philp. The book was published in 2009 by John Wiley & Sons and highlights how revolutionary practices of ING Direct helped the bank maintain its edge in uncertain markets.
His second book, Rock Then Roll: The Secrets of Culture-Driven Leadership, was written as a solo effort. In an interview with Forbes, he stated it was a book for all his ING Direct associates, and a blueprint for how the “protest generation” should think about corporate culture. Deak & Company published Rock Then Roll in 2011.
He has written several other books on finance, including Prime Cash: First Steps in Treasury Management, authored with F. John Mathis and James Mills, First Edition: April, 1983; and numerous university business cases. His thoughts on banking, leadership, and innovation have appeared in major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
Kuhlmann, and the ING Direct story, was also featured in the book Mavericks at Work, written by William C. Taylor and Polly Labarre, published in 2008, and Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership, by Gerald Seijts, 2013.
Kuhlmann is a professional speaker with the Lavin Agency. His speech topics generally focus on lessons from The Orange Code and Rock Then Roll: The Secrets of Culture-Driven Leadership.
Over the course of the past decade, Kuhlmann has been a featured speaker at conferences sponsored by Hewlett Packard, ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership, The Institute for International Leadership, McKinsey & Company, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Credit Union Executive Society, Institute for International Research, Bank Administration Institute, Allegiance, Inc., Sunoco, Inc., CareerBuilder.com, The IDEA Conference, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Drucker School of Management’s CEO Forum, and the Ivey Leadership Series. Kuhlmann spoke at C2-MTL, a leadership and entrepreneurship conference in Montreal, Canada in May 2013.
He also served as a keynote speaker and “Leader of the Pack” for the Inc. Riders’ Summit, a first-of-its-kind open-road business conference hosted by Inc. magazine in November 2013.
During his tenure as CEO of ING Direct, Kuhlmann formed the ING Direct Kids Foundation with a mandate to help children improve their financial literacy.
Kuhlmann currently serves as a director at Christiana Care Health System, Inc., and on the board of directors of the Council for Economic Education.
Kuhlmann is also known for his love of riding motorbikes. He has two Harleys. Kuhlmann can sometimes be seen riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work while listening to Metallica. Though in recent years, he's toned down the rebel image, devoting more time to painting and poetry.
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