A jump-start in coronavirus times: what’s that like?

New to the Board

A month ago, we talked to Jamilja van der Meulen and Jeroen Brouwer. Two TNO employees who decided to become active on the Board of TNO Pension Fund alongside their jobs. What’s that like? They started at a special time: just before the coronavirus crisis erupted. In this interview, they look back and share their experiences.

Jamilja van der Meulen

Jamilja van der Meulen works at Circular Economy and, as cluster leader, focuses on knowledge development in the area of tools and methods to guide and accelerate sustainability, such as monitoring models and assessing the impact of changes. Jamilja has worked at TNO for over three-and-a-half years.

Jeroen Brouwer

Jeroen Brouwer is a senior researcher and project manager for the Strategic Analyses and Policy unit, focusing on sustainable transformations of the built environment. For example, he is involved in a European project for the development of positive energy districts. It is about demonstrating the feasibility of cities being carbon neutral by 2050 in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. Jeroen has been working at TNO for 13 years.

What do you do in addition to besides being a member of the TNO Pension Fund Board?

Jeroen says that in addition to his work, he is also a supervisory board member of a housing corporation in Someren in order to contribute to social housing in the region. ‘I’ve also acquired a lot of knowledge in the areas of risk, finance and control. That’s obviously a great source of experience.’ In addition to her work, Jamilja is also a member of the Audit Chamber of the municipality of Dronten and a board member (treasurer) of the Dutch Association of Audit Offices and Audit Committees. There, she does administrative work focused on the professionalization of audit offices and their members.

Jamilja van der Meulen:
‘I see a pension fund as a big investor that can move the economy in a certain direction, for example a more sustainable direction.’

Why did you decide to work at TNO Pension Fund?

‘An HR adviser at ECN, where I used to work, once tipped me off about a vacancy at the pension fund,’ says Jamilja. It was not the time at that moment, but a short while ago proved to be the right time. ‘I like being involved in the pension fund. It started a while ago. I first served on the board of a trade union, and even then I was interested in pension funds. It also has a link to my work. I see a pension fund as a big investor that can move the economy in a certain direction, for example a more sustainable direction. I wanted to be involved in this. Apart from the fact that it is a big investor, it is of course also about our pension. I think it’s important that choices are well considered for all concerned.’

Jeroen Brouwer:
‘I’m convinced that a good pension scheme is immensely important. After retiring from work, it provides working people with an important source of income.’

Jeroen also has a great affinity for pensions. ‘Since I’ve been active on the participation council of TNO, I’ve also been a member of the pensions committee. The choices and dilemmas a pension fund faces fascinate me.’ So Jeroen’s interest was quickly piqued when the vacancy was announced at TNO Pension Fund. ‘I am convinced that the Netherlands has a good pension system. After retiring from work, it provides working people with an important source of income. A good pension scheme is immensely important. But changes are needed to the current system; it is suffering from wear and tear. I find it very special to be part of this change and to be able to help determine what the new pension scheme will look like in the future.’

‘Of course, I had to make a choice between committee work for the participation council of TNO and the pension fund,’ he says. ‘Otherwise I would have two different roles. Look at the setting of premiums, for example. While the employee participation council views this from the perspective of the employees, the Board of TNO Pension Fund looks at the whole picture and weighs all the interests. The Board considers how it works out for everyone.’

Does it meet your expectations?

In September 2020, Jeroen’s appointment to the Board of TNO Pension Fund was approved by De Nederlandsche Bank and Jamilja’s appointment was finalized in January 2021. Before that, they were prospective Board members. Jeroen says it was a special year to start. ‘I started in January 2020 just before the coronavirus crisis. So it was not exactly a quiet year. In that respect, it was quite different from what I had expected. Because of the coronavirus crisis, we had a jump-start. The crisis team was called into action and there were short cyclical checks. You experience such a period intensely. At the same time, it also creates trust. You see at close quarters how everything is managed.’ Jamilja recognizes this. ‘It’s nice, though,’ she indicates, ‘that we were able to holding meetings at the office again the other day.’ Of course, this was organized according to the guidelines. ‘What you notice then is that you have a bit more personal interaction, so you get to know people better. That’s nice.’ What Jamilja noticed during her pension course, when talking to other course members about their pension fund, is that things are well organized at TNO Pension Fund. ‘You can see this, for example, in the full attendance of the Board at meetings. Everyone is well prepared and there is good guidance. For example, Suzanne van Kooten, Chair of the Board, makes sure that everyone gets a chance to speak. Only things that can be delivered are promised. TNO Pension Fund is very attentive to this. The Board is both smart and critical, and that’s reassuring when you become a member of the Board. Moreover, the Board consists of very diverse people who complement each other well. In addition, people enjoy it and that’s great.’ Jeroen adds that there is a culture at meetings that allows critical questions. ‘However, at some point, of course, a decision has to be made. Sometimes a compromise is necessary.’

Jamilja van der Meulen:
‘If you work at TNO, then you are definitely not dumb and can certainly learn all this.’

Of course, becoming a member of the Board represents an intensive period of time. ‘That’s hardly surprising,’ says Jamilja. ‘A lot happens in a short period of time. For example, during the course you receive a lot of information about pension legislation, the Pension Code, an explanation of how De Nederlandsche Bank operates, etc. Besides all the financial stuff, the non-financial side of pensions is also discussed. All this information is needed to be able to do your work on the Board properly.’ If you are not so familiar with pensions, is it doable? Jamilja says it is a good course where various methods are used to explain everything. ‘Working at TNO means you are definitely not dumb and can certainly learn all this,’ she says enthusiastically. ‘This basic training is really necessary,’ adds Jeroen. ‘It’s complex material. The nice thing about it is that, as a prospective member of the Board, you immediately see everything in practice and this complements the training very well.’

Jeroen Brouwer:
‘It's not primarily about whether you can personally exert any influence. The entire Board is in charge. As a member of the Board, you contribute to the collective.’

Have you been able to exert any influence?

‘We have a substantial Board,’ says Jamilja. ‘You almost get an answer quicker than you can ask your question. That could give a new member of the Board the feeling that they cannot contribute, but that’s really not the case. In retrospect, for example, the remark you made is shown to have been taken on board. I am slowly starting to notice that I can definitely make a useful contribution.’ Jeroen recognizes this: ‘The first year you are mainly concerned with following the issues and understanding the discussion.’ He also indicates an important nuance when it comes to exerting influence. ‘It's not primarily about whether you can personally exert any influence,’ says Jeroen. ‘The entire Board is in charge. As a member of the Board, you contribute to the collective. It is important to have good discussions.’ Jeroen remembers, for example, the session with the risk manager on risk perception, which dealt with the analysis of environmental risk. ‘Climate was not yet listed separately as a risk. This has now been included as a separate category and so I was able to contribute something of my own vision.’

What would you like to tell potential new members?

Jeroen says that you are initially engaged in a process of searching. ‘Early on, Jamilja called me a few times and then you discuss it together. What is the Board culture like? How does the organization operate? These are questions that are on your mind. We could go through this process of searching and starting together. No bad thing. In the early days as a new Board member you should make sure you have someone on the Board you can call from time to time.’ Jamilja says that, above all, don’t assume that you have to contribute immediately. ‘It’s important that there is diversity on the Board. We are monitoring this. Everyone’s voice should be heard when it comes to pension accrual and benefits. Therefore, if you want to become active on the Board of the pension fund and you are a woman or under 40, you should know that your contribution on the Board is valuable. Don’t be put off by the complexity, because it is feasible with the necessary effort. And give yourself the time to master the material, every Board member needs this time.’