David Kuhl doesn't ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the office, but that, perhaps, is one of his rare nods to convention.
Mr. Kuhl is president of Busey Bank, an $850 million-asset bank in central Illinois that is blending homespun roots with a high-tech outlook.
It was one of the first banks to establish a presence on the Internet. This month it became one of the first to enable customers to do transactions on its Web site.
While most community bank presidents are still pondering the wisdom of posting a home page on the World Wide Web, Mr. Kuhl has invested between $100,000 and $200,000 in on-line technology and assigned three bank employees to the task.
"I pay all my bills through the Internet," said Mr. Kuhl, 47. "I love to surf the Net and see what other companies are doing."
A self-described computer buff and avid outdoorsman, Mr. Kuhl is steering his bank in a pioneering direction that he doesn't claim to fully understand. It helps that his community, the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana, are a high-tech mecca - but it also takes a dose of faith.
"If you're a banker and you're risk-averse, you're in the wrong business," Mr. Kuhl said. "Our vision is that you'll eventually be able to get any financial service through the Internet through us."
Mr. Kuhl tests all the products and services personally and constantly prods staff and superiors to learn more about on-line technology. Colleagues say he is the driving force behind Busey's innovations.
"Dave is that consumer that we're all trying to serve, so he's our test market for everything we do," said Lisa Courtney, senior vice president in charge of on-line services. "Dave has been using Quicken for four or five years. He's pretty visionary and has high expectations."
On top of that, "Dave's a cool guy," Ms. Courtney said of her boss (whose surname, coincidentally, is pronounced "cool").
On one page of Busey Bank's two-year-old Web site, "President Dave" is pictured holding a stuffed animal (Buford the Busey Bear) and offering to send one of the toys to every 10th person who fills out an Internet banking survey. A previous version of the president's page pictured Mr. Kuhl on his cherished Harley.
"I don't know about you, but I still have questions about what kind of business will be conducted on the Internet," begins the folksy pitch with which Mr. Kuhl introduces his on-line questionnaire.
"Banking seems like a logical function, and many of our Busey technical gurus tell me that banking via the Internet will be the wave of the future. That's why I need your help."
Actually, the Busey technical gurus say it was Mr. Kuhl's passion for the medium that spurred them on.
"If it was up to Dave, he would love to have every customer of Busey Bank, through an easy sign-up method, become connected to the Internet, and to be able to provide 100% of all services to everyone in this environment," said senior vice president Jeff Gaines, who has been at the bank 27 years and is credited by Mr. Kuhl with being the first to suggest an Internet presence.
"That's not a reality right now, but Dave has stood fast on this point that connectivity be available to our consumer base."
Mr. Kuhl, who has been at Busey 17 years, said the bank's sophisticated customer base was crucial to the strategy. The largely affluent Champaign-Urbana area is home to several large hospitals and the University of Illinois. The university's supercomputer center was the birthplace of Mosaic, the Web browser that spawned Netscape Communications Corp.
"At the University of Illinois, virtually 90% of faculty, staff and students are on the Internet and saying, 'We really want to bank electronically'," Mr. Kuhl said. "We're using a lot of them on our test site for Internet banking. We're not dragging our customers into it so much as our customers are dragging us into it."
Working with Electronic Data Systems Corp., Busey began offering simple Internet transactions this month. Customers can pay bills, look up accounts, transfer funds, and read statements.
For commercial customers, Busey has also set up an on-line merchant mall. For $100 a month, the bank will host a company's Web site on its server and direct traffic to it.
A florist, a law firm, a movie theater, and the university bookstore were among the first to take advantage of the service. Soon, the bank plans to make on-line payments possible for its merchant customers, using Cybercash Inc.'s electronic wallet.
Mr. Kuhl said Busey is "running two banks within one. We're running a margin business - making loans and collecting deposits and making money on the margin. We're also running an electronic bank."
Mr. Kuhl described the latter as "embryonic," but "we're placing a pretty high priority on getting this up and going, because ultimately, banking may trend over to the electronic side."
Unlike most banks its size, Busey offers the gamut of newfangled delivery channels: automated tellers, bill payments via telephone, debit cards, and banking by personal computer through direct dial-up software. It has a supermarket branch and plans to open a second.
That said, Busey still functions as a true community bank, with 18 branches in three counties and strong local ties. It was founded in 1868 by Samuel and Matthew Busey, brothers recently returned from the Civil War.
The bank has distinguished itself "not just by community ownership but by community service," said Craig Bazzani, vice president for business and finance at the University of Illinois. He serves with Mr. Kuhl on the Carle Hospital Foundation board and has observed the banker in a very different capacity - as coach of their sons' Little League team.
When Busey Bank's chairman - currently Edwin A. Scharlau 2d - holds his semiannual economic seminar at the university's Assembly Hall, he attracts 1,200 community leaders. The theme this November was "High tech is high touch."
The chairman of First Busey Corp., Busey's holding company, is Douglas C. Mills, who bought a controlling interest in 1971 from the Busey family. After Mr. Mills questioned Mr. Kuhl's heavy investment of research dollars in technology, Mr. Kuhl dispatched him to the Bank Administration Institute's Retail Delivery conference in Dallas this month.
"I happen to think electronic banking is really going to blossom over the next three years," Mr. Kuhl said. "I told the chairman, 'We have to be prepared, and if we're not prepared, someone else will be.' "
Other than that one raised eyebrow, Mr. Kuhl said, his high-tech push has encountered little resistance. Only about half the bank's officers are computer-literate, Mr. Kuhl said, but more are learning: the bank subsidizes staff purchases of personal computers for home use and offers extensive classes on spreadsheets, word processing, and Powerpoint presentations.
Rather than importing outside talent, the bank has looked within to nurture on-line expertise. Chris Isdale , Busey's "Web master," worked in loan operations - and did some Web development at home - before Mr. Kuhl and Ms. Courtney lured her over to the Internet side.
"I had a Web site of my own, and Dave and Lisa did a link to see who all had links to the bank, and my page came up," Ms. Isdale explained.
Managing Busey's Web site is a "dream job," Ms. Isdale said, because the bank is "very supportive of any new and different ideas. The more off-the- wall it is, the more interested they are."
Before joining Busey five years ago, Ms. Isdale worked at other area banks. "I have done searches for them, and they're not on the Internet yet," she said. "It's sad, because they're going to miss the boat."
Mr. Kuhl modestly describes Busey as "just one of the tag-along Midwestern banks." Yet he has big plans for banking by television. Last year, Time Warner committed $10 million to wiring Champaign-Urbana with fiber-optic cable, and Busey Bank stepped forward to offer transactions through the system. To Mr. Kuhl's frustration, Time Warner has moved slowly on the project.
"I think the Internet delivery mechanism is going to change," Mr. Kuhl said. "I think it's going to be done through your television set, a cable company, or a satellite, as opposed to a phone line. You'll have a box on your TV and toggle back and forth between the Internet and your television entertainment."
Using his penchant for Web-surfing to full effect, Mr. Kuhl went on-line to book a vacation cruise for himself, his wife, and three other couples to the Caribbean island of Tortola. He boasts he found the ship, the representative, and the broker through the Internet.
"I'm embarrassed to say I did everything on the Internet except pay for the thing," Mr. Kuhl said. "Here I am, one of the bankers who controls the financial transaction processing, and I had to sent a check in the mail."