Marie-Julie Gheysens is building up her family’s property development company to new heights.
Born and raised in Flanders, Belgium, the daughter of property developer husband-and-wife entrepreneurs, Marie-Julie Gheysens has unusual childhood memories. “My dad was busy growing the business in Poland, so we sort of grew up on construction sites. After school, my mother would often take me and my older brothers [Michael and Simon] to the site, in our uniform and wellies,” she says.
Back in 1985, her father Paul and her mother Ria launched a business in Belgium; three decades on, Ghelamco is a global property developer with a portfolio of assets under management of some €2.2 billion across sites in Poland, Belgium, France and the UK, employing around 240 individuals.
Today, however, Marie-Julie Gheysens is not wearing wellies, but a sleek dark YSL suit, a Gucci handbag, skyscraper heels and a red pointy ‘stiletto’ manicure. I am told that Chanel has her ‘on speed-dial’ to dress her for important occasions such as Ascot. We are sat in the Ghelamco office, a building she personally chose as its UK base. To say Gheysens eats, sleeps and breathes her work is in this case, true; her apartment is quite literally upstairs from the meeting room.
Has living and working in the same building turned her into a workaholic? “My first meeting of the day always starts at 8am,” she says thoughtfully, “and I won’t bother the staff after 6pm but I do work late. That’s when I am searching for creative inspiration for our projects. I spend a lot of time on Pinterest,” she adds; at any given time, she is working on “about six different mood boards”.
It’s easy to see why she likes the Ghelamco space; off the green haven of Berkeley Square in Mayfair, flooded with natural light, she has made it contemporary in style with mainly glass walls, interspersed with a tasteful mix of photography and pops of bright wallpaper from Belgium brand Arte. In one corner, she points out a well-stocked Art Deco-style bar cart, ready for Friday-afternoon cocktail-making. “My father wouldn’t have had this in the office,” she says with a grin.
It has been quite a journey for 28-year-old Gheysens, who first came to the UK at the age of 17, on her own, with little English. At first, she lived in a women-only hostel in South Kensington to do her A-levels, then she attended Regent’s University London for a degree in International Business, followed by a master’s degree in real-estate investment at Cass Business School (now known as Bayes).
Three years ago, Gheysens launched the UK business of Ghelamco. The UK share of assets is currently 12 percent, the fastest-growing part of the business thanks to the work of Gheysens and her team. They are currently promoting The Arc, a 22-storey mixed-use development in Shoreditch comprised of 100 apartments priced between £730,000 and £3.1 million. Gheysens discovered it when it was just a poorly lit carpark on the City Road. “It is a funky area, it reminded me of New York’s meatpacking district.” She signed the agreement to buy and then called her father. “The first thing he said was, ‘Don’t tell your mother.”
Creating a first-class lifestyle and wellness element was important to her, and The Arc has a yoga and fitness studio, a golf simulator, landscaped gardens by the architects behind Singapore’s Gardens by The Bay, planted with edible plants. There is a 24-hour concierge, while the design was carried out by award-winning Bowler James Brindley. Already, over 70 percent of the apartments have been snapped up.
Ghelamco as a developer is known for its sustainability credentials, last year becoming the first developer in Poland to build photovoltaic farms as a part of its environmental, social and governance strategy. The building has no carparking spaces, instead, 400 bike racks, and operates a rainwater recycling system for the lush gardens. Gheysens says the building functions at around 30 percent lower energy consumption than its peers, partly through its heat-pump system.
She points to the fact that last year Google acquired a three-building mixed-use office scheme for a record €583 million, the largest single-office transaction in the history of the Polish market, from Ghelamco. “Our goal is to create buildings that are sustainable and accessible to all and that is what The Warsaw Hub is,” says Gheysens. “Google is known for being at the forefront of energy efficiencies, we are proud that Google Poland decided to have its headquarters there and bought this property.”
Google, which became carbon neutral in 2007, has been one of the most environmentally outspoken corporates, with a goal to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy in all its data centres and campuses by 2030.
Although Gheysens learned much from her parents growing up, they left her to her own devices when it came to the launching the UK business. “My father didn’t give me any steer when I first started looking at opportunities in January 2021. Yes, I was only two months into working in the company, but I have been around him my whole life. In the first year he would attend meetings with me, but he was the listener, he would make me drive the deals and be the executioner. And perhaps at first it gave confidence to sellers that it was more serious. But now I’ve been doing it two or three years, I have more authority, there is a mandate.”
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