Like with ‘ordinary people’ there are two types of CEO’s: talkers and doers. When a talker talks about a company to be proud of there is always a risk that it’s intended as a pep talk. A doer, on the other hand, only says it when it is really true. Well, PNO’s CEO Peter Zwart is a doer and he is proud of PNO. And he has reason to be. PNO has transformed into a sound and decisive enterprise that stands out from the rest and has a promising future ahead of it. A transformation he is responsible for to a significant extent. But one that could not have taken place without the hard work of all 300+ PNO employees, as he realizes.

With so many people on board, scattered over seven countries and nineteen offices, it’s almost impossible for him to personally get to know each one of you. As it is the other way around. All the more reason for an interview with Peter Zwart, PNO’s Chief Executive Officer.

Peter, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? For instance, how did you end up working for PNO?

“After I got my master’s degree in law in 1976, I started as a management trainee at a predecessor of the Dutch ABNAMRO bank. After some time, I became manager of the Special Assets department – ‘intensive care’ in jargon. Subsequently I was asked to become a board member at Van Lanschot, one of the oldest independent private banks in the Netherlands. After being a board member for twelve years I felt the need for a change. I became a restructurer, and in that capacity I was able to help large companies back on track. In 2009 I also became a member of the PNO Supervisory Board. Until then PNO had grown rapidly with offices in many Eastern European countries, following the EU money so to say. It was an obvious strategy at that time but unfortunately things did not go the way the former management expected and PNO wasn’t performing well anymore. I left the Supervisory Board and became CEO of PNO. The rest is history.”

So, then you became CEO of one of the largest grant consultancy companies in Europe. What did you know about grants?

“Well, I wasn’t (and still am not) a subsidy specialist if that is what you mean. But then again, I don’t need to be. What is the purpose of me becoming a specialist in grants, innovation, compliance et cetera when we have so many experts in this field working for PNO? My job is to know how markets operate and how an organisation, any organisation, can excel in its market. Larger overview and smaller insight are a symbiotic pair, I always say.”

“Larger overview and smaller insight are a symbiotic pair”

“On the other hand, I need to speak to almost every person in a company to be able to fill in the gaps in the photo that I make. It particularly helps me to uncover methods and habits that can be changed for the better. Solving these kinds of problems is like solving a big puzzle of which people and profit are always the biggest pieces to fit into.”

People that work with you say you are always in a hurry!

“Yes, that’s true, I am. Every day I realise that if we want to stay the early adopter that we are, we need speed. In everything that we do. It’s unfortunate, maybe, but necessary. You could say that the bigger a company becomes the more important speed is. Clients, competitors, everyone has its eye on you and holds his breath to see how you react to a development. Because if we don’t, they do. So yes, it has to be done swift and thorough at the same time. This is my and PNO’s challenge over and over again.”

Very recently life sciences specialist ttopstart joined PNO. Did you also feel a sense of urgency in doing that deal?

“In a way yes. When the opportunity presented itself there was a momentum. Both ttopstart and PNO were open to look into the possibilities and in such a case, progress has to be made. So, we took every opportunity that came by to discuss all ins and outs, to introduce key personnel and to negotiate the deal. We even came together during the senior consultants’ weekend in Spain! But there is also another reason for the momentum. Like other specialisms within PNO, life sciences & health is a key sector when it comes to the major challenges our society gets to deal with in the coming eras. Think of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. These challenges can only be tackled with a combination of pure specialism and scale. With this in mind, the ttopstart opportunity could not have come at a better time. Patrick, Jasper and their team run a very professional business, so we came across each other at the right moment. But I am also aware that the deal we made is only a start. Now the new organisation must be (re)formed and activated. And again, we need to do this thoroughly and quickly at the same time.”

The number one question for every CEO: how is our company doing?

“PNO is doing excellent! We are a great company where everybody works very hard. We have top clients and great challenges ahead. We are financially healthy, we are market leader in the Netherlands and on our way to become one in Europe.“

“If we want to stay an early adopter, we need speed”

“I do think, however, we are not always aware of our intrinsic power ourselves. Only look at the huge amount and diversity of expertise which we can dispose of and the quality all our specialists are able to deliver, over and over again. We are capable to compete with our biggest competitors. That should say something. This is also part of my job: to empower all PNO people and make them aware that together we can really make a huge difference. A year ago we unfolded our new strategy of becoming Europe’s number one innovation and grants consultancy. I am a hundred percent convinced that we are on the right track. If all readers of this interview are too, we will definitely get there.”

Despite a Brexit?

“With or without a Brexit. Our UK office is doing splendidly as well, and I see no reason why that should change. EU grants aside, there will be national grants in the UK for a long time to come, and innovation will not stop after a possible Brexit. And then again: who knows what will be decided on a governmental level? Everything is a big blur right now, but not a big issue for PNO as far as I am concerned.”

To conclude, what is your favorite PNO country?

“Haha, I have none. The beauty of our company is the various cultures we are dealing with. Every culture has its own specifics, and it’s great that we know how to respect that. The way we work together or interact, for instance during the weekend in Spain last year, is really one of our assets. Working for such a beautiful company makes me proud and it’s one of my greatest joys to be able to work with so many inspiring professionals.”

“PNO is doing excellent”