AG Real Estate (AGRE) CEO, Serge Fautré, is no stranger to cultural change, having achieved his MBA in Chicago and beginning his finance career in New York, as well as studying and working in London, before returning to settle in Brussels and heading up AG Real Estate in 2011. Serge’s career path has included many impressive leadership roles across top finance brands including JP Morgan, Citibank, and Schroders. He then had a stint in the industry as Head of Corporate Finance with Belgian telecom incumbent Proximus and glass company Glaverbel, where he went on to become Company Director. His eventual shift to real estate saw him serve ten years as the CEO of Cofinimmo, before he crossed over to AGRE.
A sporting enthusiast and former tennis player, Serge is not all work and no play. He happily chats about England’s recent shock loss to Iceland in the 2016 European Football Championship, which removed the team from the competition. “First Britain exited the EU, and now they have left the Euro 2016. It’s Brexit part two,” he laughs. Now in his sixth year at the helm of AGRE, Serge has steered the company through transformation to diversify service offerings and capabilities, develop a greater culture of staff engagement and growth, and increase its involvement in large public-private partnerships (PPP).
A subsidiary of AG Insurance, AGRE is the largest real estate group in Belgium, with a diversified property portfolio worth €5.5 billion, covering property/infrastructure development, investment, financing, and public car park management. Serge says it has been a great competitive advantage to be able to leverage the umbrella group’s financial muscle to support its core activities. “We are a reasonably large organisation, which means our value chain includes a greater breadth of abilities that, if properly managed and integrated, can provide so many answers and solutions for clients. There is so much experience in this team,” he says.
Developers as well as investors
“We combine the dynamism of real estate with the strengths and inherent long-term trust of the insurer. Also because we are developers as well as investors, we are leaders in asset management as well as buying and selling real estate. Clients can see that we are putting our money where our mouth is.” As both investors in property, and asset managers with a portfolio under management of €4 billion for AG Insurance and €0.5 billion for third-party accounts, Serge says success is driven not only by acquiring property as an asset, but also through the maintenance of every element of that property. “I firmly believe that you don’t invest in real estate the same way that you buy equities.
“Property is not only about bricks and mortar, but also about the tenants within. Anybody who doesn’t understand that, and can’t answer the needs of tenants, is a loser in this industry,” says Serge. “To remain a leading player, you have to be both trusted and liked by clients. You are liked if you are concerned for the client, and if you are creative in how you approach things. That is a major objective for us as a firm.” An important element in the company’s recent growth is the diversification of the business, which enables it to deliver a greater product range and wider capability, with AGRE’s current expansion into new residential development within Brussels, and also spearheading a new form of real estate investment financing.
“We combine the dynamism of real estate and the strengths and inherent long-term trust of the insurer.” – Serge Fautré
AGRE has completed more than 2 million square-metres of office, residential, and retail space in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, with another forty projects spanning 800,000 square metres in the pipeline. In addition to providing turnkey property projects for businesses, the company has a strategic focus across urban redevelopment, practicing restoration and preservation techniques to maintain the historical integrity of heritage buildings. AGRE is also working towards developing more sustainable communities, both environmentally and socially, with special eco-friendly building sites available to suit a mix of different uses.
Driving corporate social responsibility initiatives
Serge has also helped to drive the corporate social responsibility initiatives of AGRE by re-purposing empty buildings so that they don’t go to waste. Notably, AGRE has worked with various groups to ensure that empty properties overlooking the Willebroeck Quay in Brussels provide a large, safe studio space for artists to create new works at a moderate cost. It also partners with Citizens Platform to help support Syrian refugees by providing a safe space where they can access shelter, medical services, donated clothes, and food, and even learn some basic French and Dutch. One property awaiting demolition in the city was also used to host a ‘spray paint gallery’, with AGRE funding spray paint for local artists to make final use of the building’s 7,000 square metres of bare walls.
AGRE is involved in several PPPs, including a leading role in the fast-track Scholen van Morgen (Schools of Tomorrow) initiative to build 188 school buildings in Flanders, with seventy-five members of the team working across the design, finance, build, and maintenance of those buildings over thirty years. “We take great pride in developing those 188 schools for the Flemish Government. It would make me very happy if we could replicate that program with another region in Belgium, which I am reasonably hopeful that we will be able to do,” says Serge. “The future in Europe lies in our ability to educate people, because good education is the social ladder for every single person to have a chance to make it in the economic world.”
Creating alignment between public and private sectors
In addition to other PPP involvement building prisons and administrative centres, Serge says he hopes for future alignment between the public and private sector on social housing projects. “At a time when the government’s ability to borrow money is limited by a number of EU constraints, now more than ever there needs to be a trust and alignment built between public bodies and private bodies,” he says. “We have to work together, so we have to respect each other. That means that the private sector needs to operate with integrity so that the public sector can trust us.”
“People have to be trained and developed in their roles and across new areas. Otherwise it is a recipe for disaster.” – Serge Fautré
Investment in education
The focus on education is also strong within the company, and Serge has led an increase in funding and time committed to educating and developing his employees. “That is a corporate responsibility but also a social responsibility,” he says, “and is one of the most important core positions of the firm. People have to be trained and developed in their roles and across new areas, otherwise it is a recipe for disaster.” AGRE now provides what Serge refers to as ‘mini MBAs’, where the company has partnered with select real estate university programs to provide either ongoing part time training or one week of concentrated real estate education for employees.
“We are investing not only in hard skills but also soft skills, covering selling, negotiation, presentation, and seminar skills. A number of our senior managers, for instance, have also been able to undertake Harvard Leadership programs.” Like the old parenting adage, Serge believes that a good organisation should provide its employees with both roots and wings — make their workplace feel like their home, help them to grow, but then be willing to let them move on. “When somebody leaves us for another company, I am proud that another good firm knows that AG Real Estate develops its people, and thus they know the employee will be a great worker,” he says.
“I always congratulate people when they get a new job, and I ask them: ‘Could we have done anything to convince you to stay longer?’ But, as we invest in our staff, I am happy for them for them to be happy.” Serge has overseen efforts to improve employee satisfaction including moving to a new and improved office space so that employees can better enjoy their surroundings. The company is also implementing an Intranet for
staff, for better collaboration and communication, and to ensure they are offering a modern workplace. “We are aiming to be an employer of choice,” Serge says.
In return, employees are expected to follow AGRE’s three core values of responsibility, creativity, and teamwork. Everyone must be responsible for themself and bring strength to the organisation as an individual, but must work together and celebrate wins as a collective. “We are trying to create a culture of sharing success. Remember, no one person is the owner of success,” says Serge. “It is the entire firm that is the recipient of all success. We share success, good humour, one another’s company, and we share joy when the Belgium soccer team wins!”