Robert Greaney, Departmental Financial Controller
Rob was with DPAG from September 2009 - April 2020, heading up the Finance team. He was responsible for managing the department's financial strategic goals to support both its research and non-research objectives, while overseeing the day-to-day running of the various accounts and transactions. Prior to this, he spent 4 years in the central University's Research Accounts team. Interview on Wednesday 31 July 2019.
How did you come to work in Finance?
I decided to enter the world of finance because I enjoy understanding how a business operates, and I stayed in it because it’s a really positive and diverse role. Finance is so much more than number crunching – it impacts every aspect of an organisation and the exciting part is that it enables it to grow and expand. I started out as an apprentice working for a Chartered Accountancy practice, where I learned the ropes conducting audits and producing statutory accounts for sole traders and partnerships. I soon realised this wasn’t the area for me, so I moved onto work for a multimedia group, where I managed the accounts of a number of its publications, TV and radio stations, as well as the accounts for the group; it was really interesting to learn how a diverse commercial organisation works.
How did you come to work at DPAG?
When I was looking for my next opportunity, a former mentor was seconded to Oxford University and contacted me about a job in Research Accounts he thought I’d be interested in. He gave me an inside perspective and I was keen to see how the University of Oxford operates! In this role, I learned how the university operates from a central perspective, talking to various divisional financial controllers as well as departmental finance officers. Then the role came up here, it covered quite a broad scope and I thought I needed a new challenge. So, I decided to take a stab and see what life was like out in a department!
What were your first impressions of DPAG?
It was a challenging department at the time I joined. A number of years earlier, the individual departments (laboratories of physiology and human anatomy and genetics) had merged, but they were still operating independently administratively. The main Administrator role was also unstable, and I saw 4 Administrators in my first 3 years. It was an interesting challenge to come in and bring the various finance functions together to make a joined up team, and I was able to see the whole department come together.
Tell us about your role here
My main role is pulling together the department’s different resources and activities, from its teaching and research to its day-to-day building and maintenance, to understand the total cost impact on the department. Alongside this, I put together the various models and business cases needed to bring in new academic positions, and make financial cases to secure funding to support the buildings. I also look at our different revenue streams and make sure they are calculated correctly, that the income flows through, and our accounts are reconciled and balanced. I also liaise with the other departmental operations. For example, my team works a lot with the Research Administration team because research accounts for 50% of our income, and if research applications don’t come in, this has an impact on the department’s financial performance and how much we can invest in the activities that the department requires. We also facilitate all other kinds of support, such as interacting with the HR, Facilities and IT teams.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
I most enjoy the problem solving - identifying the root cause of an issue, so that in the longer term we can have more success. If there’s been any papering over the cracks, you’ve got to go back to basics, understand exactly why it’s gone wrong, maybe make some mistakes, to come up with a proper solution to support that particular process in the long run. You have to make it ugly to make it pretty again!
Has there been a highlight in your time here at the Department?
My philosophy is that we’re here to constantly try and improve. The department has so many positives and strengths that many people may not know about, and it’s important to continuously improve on these and work together. I would say the biggest win for the department recently is David Paterson successfully securing the capital funding to enable the development of the department’s estates. In the past, we’ve often relied on operating capital, so seeing external funding secured is very positive and will improve our ability to deliver the science. The Sherrington Phase 1 building work had a complicated and unusual funding structure, so my team worked with several university partners to come up with sensible solution to keep track of the costs. That was a very interesting challenge, as we had to work with some limitations to the financial systems in order to come up with a solution that enabled cross-departmental collaborative finances to come together and make this important work happen.
What would you say are your biggest challenges?
DPAG is a deficit department, meaning our costs currently outweigh the income that comes in. A lot of that is down to the funding environment - basic sciences aren’t as well funded as the gains come further down the line. A lot of the well-funded areas have quick short-term gains, so they get a lot of return. So my biggest challenge is putting together the cases to enable us to continue to invest with the understanding that the returns won’t be immediate, and may be 3, 4 or 5 years down the line. However, that can be difficult when the institution is often evaluated on a year-by-year basis. The point we are trying to make is that you can’t look at our department in absolute terms. Although our research activity has gone down in absolute terms over the last year or two compared to previous years, in reality we have a number of vacant positions which has contributed to this downward trend in activity. Per capita, we are actually performing a lot better. When you look at how much research income we’re getting on average per research group, we are performing better than we were a number of years back. Our activity is growing, but in absolute terms we appear to be reducing because we’re not as big as we were due to these vacant positions. We need to tell the story behind the numbers, because if you cut costs at the same rate as reduction of activity, then when the department starts growing, you can’t build the growth back in; the growth ends up being stifled if you don’t have the resources to support the growth.
Is there anything you wish people understood about your job?
I wish people would appreciate that if we say no to something, it’s not because we’re rigidly sticking to a process, but because we’re looking at the bigger picture. We have to consider the funders' obligations, the broader context (are we being efficient, effective and using our resources as best the department can?), and ultimately whether the request is appropriate for the longer term. We don’t want to make quick savings now. It’s not just a question of whether an item is cheaper than another; we want to understand the full life cost, and whether it’s cheaper in the long run. The cost of running and maintaining a piece of equipment is more important than the cost of getting it through the door.
So how does the finance team work together?
There is no one person doing a specific task, all members get involved in all aspects. It’s a young team, as we’ve been together less than a year and it’s not fully filled. Currently, there’s a main team of 3, which is headed up by Dorota, and they handle a lot of the transactional processing and reconciliations. We are getting an Apprentice in September, which will be the last piece in the finance team puzzle, who will support them as well as working with analytics to understand the bigger picture of the department. We’re also currently going through a transitional period with what finance is looking to deliver.
Can you tell us more about these transitions and what’s coming up for your team and the Department?
The big one that’s coming up is in January 2020 the University is rolling out a new iExpenses policy and process. We will also soon be moving more of our groups to a web based travel portal, which will enable them to book flights, accommodation and trains on the system via a purchase order to avoid having to put it on their expenses. The other thing that is very much being driven by the University is the new Focus programme, which will be leading on a lot of process changes to make them more efficient and reduce the steps that often cause people frustration! We are also taking on a number of processes local to the department. In the coming months, we will set up a working group looking at our local ordering systems, so they can be migrated onto a new IT system, while ensuring the process is still optimal and essentially improve what we currently do.