After attending the hotel school in Maastricht, Petra Jansen op de Haar wanted to continue her studies. To widen her horizons and to gain a deeper understanding of economics. She chose to study Policy-oriented Economics in Nijmegen; the study that broadened her view of the world and helped her move into a successful career in banking. She is now a director at Hiltermann Lease, where she helps entrepreneurs finance cars and other business assets.
‘Take others into your perspective and they will come up with the same ideas or better’
We all need to learn to digitise processes in a customer-centric way, because the job market will simply not be there soon
Petra Jansen op de Haar
Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Hiltermann Lease
Master Policy-oriented Economics at Nijmegen School of Management
You are Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Hiltermann Lease. What exactly do you do?
‘I’m administratively responsible for the company, together with two other colleagues. As COO, I’m also responsible for HR, Information Technology & Data and the acceptance and preparation of lease contracts for customers. At Hiltermann Lease, we take the financing of cars, vehicle pools, machinery and equipment off our clients’ hands. This enables entrepreneurs to free up more money for other investments. This makes our organisation more of a financial institution than a car company - kind of a bank actually.’
How did you end up doing Policy-oriented Economics in Nijmegen?
‘Via a detour. I first went into business administration after the hotel school. I come from an entrepreneurial family, so business administration seemed a good choice. However, from the very first moment in the lecture hall, I thought, ‘I don’t like this at all, I like economics a lot more.’ I switched immediately, and it turned out to be the right choice.’
Were you already interested in economics as a child?
‘Yes, I was always doing things with money. My parents said I often played ‘bank’ while friends played cowboys and Indians outside. I think I’ve still got all kinds of bags of old coins hidden around the garden. I found an old report card from primary school the other day. It says I was social. serious and, admittedly, good with numbers.’
What was your career like after you graduated?
‘I found it difficult to get into bigger companies at first; they thought the combination of economics at university and hotel school was odd. Eventually, the Rabobank in Nijmegen called me and asked whether I wanted to start as a trainee. I wanted to, because I wanted to get started. Once I was in, I moved onto the dealing room fairly quickly; that’s where the stock trading for institutional investors was carried out. That was the first position where I actually used what I learned from my studies too, because you are constantly concerned with movements in the economy there. I ended up staying with the Rabobank for 20 years, moving up through management roles to HR programme manager. I left for a.s.r. insurance later, where I where I worked in a number of roles, including as the executive chair of a.s.r. Bank.’
How did your studies contribute to your career?
‘If I hadn’t studied economics, I wouldn’t have been able to progress like this at Rabobank and I probably wouldn’t have ended up working at board level for a.s.r. either. Basically, the study gave me access to jobs that require you to think at an academic level. In Policy-oriented Economics, I also really learned how to conduct academic research: what facts are there, what exactly is going on? If I hadn’t had that foundation, I think it would have all taken much more effort.’
Did your study make you see things from a different perspective?
‘I was much better able to understand what was going on in the world thanks to this study and how it affected corporate profits and interest rates, for example. I’m also very customer-oriented thanks to my study programme at the hotel school. This combination has made it easy for me to switch between macro and micro perspectives. I’m also always a great believer in providing my employees with as many perspectives as possible. I try to give them as much insight into the context as I can so that they can come up with their own proposals, which are often better than if I come up with them myself. That makes me very happy.’
What would your advice for today’s students be?
‘My daughter graduated from secondary school last year. Her teacher hit the nail on the head with his story, I think. He said: ‘Listen, you’re in the small percentage of people in the Netherlands who have a high level of education. You should realise that the world you’ll be working in isn’t at that same level. Try to make your knowledge understandable for every level, and then try to translate it into what that means to them.’
So what I would tell today’s students is that, with all their knowledge and development, they should respect those differences and also know how to translate between levels, because when you involve others in your perspective, they come up with the same ideas or better ones.’
Finally, would you finish the following sentence? ‘In the next five years, Nijmegen School of Management should focus on...
...the problems we will face in the Netherlands over the next 15 to 20 years. Think about making our economy more sustainable and the massive job market shortage. How can I digitise my processes so I need less help? This question is currently top priority in every company. This means we all need to learn to digitise processes in a customer-centric way, because the job market will simply not be there soon.
But also: how do you deal with the problems of an ageing population that we are experiencing? We need to make policies that keep the older generation working too. We need everyone, at every level. It will take a whole culture change to make that happen.’
Text: Annette Zonnenberg