Wednesday, November 5, 2008

ING Direct USA's Kuhlmann on Managing in a Crisis

ING Direct USAs Kuhlmann on Managing in a Crisis

There's a lot of talk about mavericks these days. But there are few in the financial services industry who rival Arkadi Kuhlmann, the CEO of ING Direct USA, the Wilmington (Del.)-based direct-banking arm of Dutch financial services giant ING Groep. Kuhlmann has never offered credit cards to his customers. He's stuck to plain-vanilla mortgages. And he's always encouraged ING Direct's customers to save, rather than to "live richly," as one mega-bank ad campaign touted.

Despite being part of ING, which the Dutch government has injected with 10 billion euros as part of the global financial crisis, that approach is serving Kuhlmann well. "We've consistently been advising people not to have too much debt, save your money, don't get overextended," says Kuhlmann. "We've been providing the chicken-noodle soup for finance." Kuhlmann says he's still doing a billion new dollars in mortgage production a month.

That consistent, no-nonsense approach isn't just helping him manage his business. It's also helping him manage his employees. "The thing that gets a lot of our associates really wired up is they know we were in the right," Kuhlmann says. "For them this is a big validation of the business model.… We're not preaching, but we're saying to people 'do the right thing. We've been there for you and we continue to be there for you.' That's the energizer that we've got inside the business."

Employees Have Been Slammed

Still, he knows the economy has employees worried about jobs, and they've also been slammed by the volume of customers transferring money, rebalancing accounts, and signing up at ShareBuilder, INGDirect's low-cost, no-minimum brokerage. Here is his advice for managing people in a downturn:

KEEP COMMUNICATION OPEN. Kuhlmann has e-mailed employees weekly, and does a Monday morning radio show that goes out to staff, in which he openly addresses issues and interviews staff about what's on their minds.

TOSS OUT THE SCRIPTS. Customers are scared and are looking for a real human on the other end of the phone. "The one thing we do advocate is for people to be very personal about it. Share their views. The only way through this is to have a national conversation. It can't be politicized, or PR-itized. In any sense there's a script, you've got to be human about it. If you have a fear you have to talk about it. …Be very personal so we're not hiding behind a corporate brand or behind a slogan."

KNOW YOU CAN'T CONTROL EVERYTHING. "I don't think you can really manage this. I think it's the way a party happens. You put all the ingredients together and then you've got to let it happen. I don't think you can control those things."

SHARE BAD NEWS, TOO. "Our internal Web page has all the news and key developments of the day for anyone to see—the good, the bad, and the ugly. There's no selectivity on who sees what. Everybody sees everything." That goes for customer stories, too. "We're sharing a lot more good news stories from customers, but also bad news stories from customers." Kuhlmann says he's also answering employees' questions directly about layoffs. "Nobody wants to talk about that, but you've got to be clear," he says. "Right now, the truth is the volumes are consistent…and we have no plans of any layoffs."

REMAIN VISIBLE. Besides the radio show, Kuhlmann has held town hall meetings in the company's various buildings on a weekly basis, and he plans to visit the company's other national sites in the coming weeks.

STAY STEADY. "The reality is when you're preparing for financial hurricane, you can close some shutters, but you really can't do very much. The minute you try to get defensive, people get even more worried. In the financial business, it's all about confidence, staying steady, and continuing on."

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