DIFFER has a new financial system, and so do the other NWO-I institutes: a major operation. René Schoonen (DIFFER Finance and Control) was one of the people behind the scenes, he was member of the steering committee of the introduction project. Mariette Huisjes portrayed him for the DIFFER Annual Report 2020.
Protecting DIFFER from minor and major financial catastrophes is his daily mission of René Schoonen, head of Finance and Control. With large and complex equipment and many temporary, externally funded projects, anything can go wrong. Therefore, Schoonen is always on the lookout for potential hazards and ways to control them.
After his business administration training, René Schoonen started to work at an accountancy firm. “There I had to wear a three-piece gray suit; it literally and figuratively felt like a straitjacket,” he recalls. Schoonen made a radical switch and for several years managed the finances of a care home where people with multiple disabilities lived. In 2011 he came to DIFFER. Another big transition, for sure? Oh no, says Schoonen. “People in science have a totally different background from those in health care, of course. But they share a passion for their work, and they need a similar approach: as a financial specialist I do not transgress into their field of expertise, but listen to them attentively and offer my help.”
Like a glove
Sometimes, Schoonen has to confront overenthusiastic researchers, who in his view are too optimistic about the financial future of their project and endanger DIFFER’s financial stability. That is the toughest part of his job, he says. “But when I play my cards right, and they see my point and see that I can be of service to them, then I am happy and round off my workday with a smile. Working at DIFFER agrees with me because of the freedom and responsibility I enjoy. This suit is more comfortable; it fits me like a glove.”
The concept of risk management emerged in the interaction with other financial specialists within NWO-I, the overarching organization of all research institutes governed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), Schoonen says. “I find it interesting to broaden my horizon and look behind the scenes at other institutes. One of the things I learned is that you can gain maximum control by making an inventory of all the risks: what will it cost to install this expensive new equipment, who is going to use it, who can contribute, what are the maintenance costs, and how long will the equipment last? It sounds so obvious to map all this, but it only works when you put everything in black and white and then keep monitoring what really happens.”
New financial system
In the spring of 2021, all NWO institutes will adopt a new financial system. It is based on the original UNIT4Business World system used by DIFFER and some other institutes, and it will go by the name of New Financial System (“as financial specialists, we are not particularly creative with names”). Schoonen was on the steering committee of the introduction project. He explains that for DIFFER, the new system will not change much since it looks a lot like the one already in use. "The main advantage of the harmonization is that the board of NWO-I has more oversight, which means it can do a better job of risk management."
Text Mariette Huisjes, photo Bart van Overbeeke/DIFFER. This interview will appear in the DIFFER Annual Report 2020.