When Catherine Smith took the reins of ING's U.S. Retirement Services last December, it was an especially jittery time for investors. So one of her first orders of business was to personally call or visit many of ING's largest clients, backing up the efforts of field representatives.

The outreach helped ING hold on to nervous clients, says Smith, who had previously served as head of ING's U.S. Insurance business. "It has really benefited us in the form of higher-than-ever retention across the board in our plan sponsor and participant relationships."

ING U.S. Retirement Services is one of the nation's largest defined benefit contribution plans. Following a $900 million acquisition of CitiStreet last year, ING ranks No. 1 in terms of plans, with 52,000, according to Pensions & Investments. It is second in terms of participants with seven million, and third in assets under management, with $235 billion.

One idea gleaned from the customer interviews was to retain the strong record-keeping functions of a technology platform that came with CitiStreet. Smith has moved the platform's strengths downstream to ING's legacy clients, mainly small and mid-size companies.

The feedback also led to the launch of another product to meet customer needs: "INGCompareMe.com," a tool for plan sponsor participants that compares their financial situation to others with similar demographics in order to encourage saving. "When people understand how they are doing relative to their peer group, they usually want to do better," Smith says.

Smith's commitments outside of work include serving on the board of Outward Bound, an organization that leads struggling teens on wilderness expeditions, challenging them to go beyond expectations and work with others. For Smith, the lessons funnel back into work life. "It's the team and tools you are using," she says. "It's all those things together that help you be effective on what you are doing and allow you to do what you think you can't do."

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