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Q&A with Marie-Julie Gheysens - talking family ties and gender barriers

A few weeks ago we reported on Ghelamco's first UK scheme in Shoreditch, which is being spearheaded by 27-year-old Marie-Julie Gheysens, the firm's head of UK and the daughter of Paul Gheysens, the company's founder.

The developer is known for urban homes, offices and retail, with its portfolio also including branded residences, golf courses, football stadiums and hotels.

Here, we chat with Marie-Julie about the company's first UK venture, working for the family business, the importance of sustainability and where Ghelamco plans to go in the coming years.


You've just recently launched your first scheme in the UK, The Arc - what are the similarities and differences between the UK property market and the other markets you operate in in Europe?

Wherever we operate, we try to build transformational, forward-thinking environments. In the UK the boundaries of innovation particularly in relation to sustainability have been pushed less than other regions we have worked in, as the market has not been challenged due to its buoyancy. Lack of talent is a common threat to any industry, but the UK has always been at the forefront of innovation and has some of the best educated talent pool.

Why the entry into the UK market now?

The UK is very much my home, and it feels natural to be able to contribute to the place making of this vibrant and dynamic country, particularly as the UK is full of opportunities. Work started with The Arc on the first day lockdown was announced, that was quite something, but it forced us to focus on the output and the achievement ahead of us.

You've grown up in the family business, learning lots about property development - was there ever any other life path other than property for you?

Being involved in Ghelamco from such a young age has allowed me to be immersed into the business in a unique way. As a family business, my brothers and I have had the opportunity to grow with the business and develop a unique understanding of it and its operations.

I’ve spent much of education and early part of my career gaining valuable skills and experience in the wider industry and outside of construction entirely. Studies abroad, working in New York and working away from the family business has allowed me to see that I’ve always shared the same passion as my father.

However, a career in property represents so many different trades and no day is the same. It can be very creative when we’re developing place making concepts. I love to get involved in every part of the business, whether that’s financial analysis, legal or picking the florals for the marketing suite.

Do you feel, as the child of the founder of a business, that it's hard to escape their shadow? Or is it actually an opportunity for the younger generations to come up with new ideas and evolve the company in ways not previously considered?

I am hugely proud that I’m related to such a visionary and have the opportunity to learn from the best, with my father as the founder of the business. I work hand-in-hand with him on projects in UK as well as those in Belgium. We’re both equally committed to all the projects we develop, and the importance of his years of experience is paramount. His input into the work I do, and equally my own innovations within the business, are valued and we both have a huge respect for one another’s work.

The whole family is strong and independent, and our creativity has always been a strength. We only want the best for the company, if someone has a bright idea – we execute that immediately, no matter where it comes from. We’ve always been encouraged to challenge the current status quo too, to bring our own insights and perspective to any project. Key to this has been our family policy to listen and communicate with one another, in open and honest discourse.

As a woman in the property industry - still quite heavily male-dominated - have you faced any barriers or obstacles?

Barriers are there to be overcome and every day is an opportunity for us all as a business to work towards our common goal, creating great projects. In any industry it is of course much easier to talk about breaking down barriers than to actually do but I think we’re moving past gender biases in construction. At Ghelamco there’s a 50:50 male to female employee ratio, within our team we look for flexible growing mindset, passion and collaborative spirit.

I’m a huge advocate for extensive training and education to create more opportunities in the industry for young women. I am appreciative to be in a position to lead a strong diverse team. Part of being able to make this happen is ensuring the team has a healthy work-life balance and creating a workplace where creativity can be channelled and nurtured on both a personal and professional level.

I’ve also always been inspired by my mother’s strong work ethic and drive; Ria Gheysens, leads an entirely female team, which includes project management, marketing and day-to-day operational management, down to more granular detail such as the social media account.

Does Ghelamco have plans for further schemes in the UK?

We have plenty of exciting placemaking lifestyle destinations to announce in the near future. We haven’t even scratched the surface of potential for Ghelamco in UK and so look forward to making further new announcements in the future.

How important is sustainability to Ghelamco?

Planning for a sustainable future is something both my father and I care about immensely. Ghelamco are pioneers in innovation and take responsibility to actively reduce our environmental footprint and contribute to our ESG goal. One of these actions is decarbonisation through best-in-class energy management.

We were the first to undertake BREEAM Excellent certification in CEE and have our building monitoring systems integration tool (asset performance program) engage in accurate short- and long-term capital forecasting. The road to Net Zero is our highest priority.

Particularly with the development of The Arc, we prioritised sustainable solutions, including air filtration, daylight, digital solutions and quality of space. I want to constantly challenge the team to find new solutions for modern day residents and workers, to ensure a sustainable future for the construction industry. This can be translated to the triple certification the Arc carries, BREEAM & well & DNGB what is extremely rare for a mixed-use development.


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