Part of the Ageas conglomerate, AG Real Estate manages assets worth US$6.9 billion in Europe. It’s primarily focused on local markets in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France where it acts both as an investor and developer.
Apart from having 300 employees and the backing of AG Insurance, CEO Serge Fautré points to another aspect that makes AG Real Estate so unique – it has the feel of a toy store. "We have so many projects going at the same time that it’s difficult not to find something where I am learning or our firm is learning every day," he says.
The progress arc of AG Real Estate seems to back Fautré’s claims. It owns a 51 percent stake in Interparking, has stayed ahead of the curve in terms of technological adoption and is one of the very first European real estate companies to venture into senior healthcare operational activities. But, as it was for most real estate businesses, things could have come to a screeching halt in 2020.
Where I find that evolution is happening the fastest is in the implementation of energy saving technologies and mechanisms.
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, however, the company drew on its strong workplace culture. They developed remote work spaces within a week, organized daily online activities and equipped teams with the latest and greatest tools. Due to this, business activities were able to remain at full speed. In times like these it is the communication skills and the core resiliency of a business that shine through.
"Very quickly we realized that we had to make a particular effort to keep the corporate culture going," Fautré recalls. "From an economic standpoint, many of our asset classes kept working pretty well."
Fautré’s honest, personal, and "from the heart" leadership skills became the marker of difference as AG Real Estate came out of the pandemic with minimal damage, and he credits the culture of transparency he built within the company for its success.
I have a dream that we can intervene in the PPP market for sustainable housing, affordable housing or even social housing.
"People look at you a bit as their flag. They like to understand that you are just like them. You’re probably a bit bigger, but they have to trust that if there is a problem, you will tackle it with them and when things go fine you tell them. That you’re on their side."
Interestingly, Fautré finds that major innovations have already happened in the development of technology in the industry, at least in Belgium, indicating that they are past the quantum leap in this field.
"Where I find that evolution is happening the fastest is in the implementation of energy saving technologies and mechanisms. Geothermal is incredible. We have applied it and we’re looking to implement it in every new project," he says.
Towards affordable housing
Part of why Fautré is optimistic about energy saving technologies is because they align with AG Real Estate’s bigger goal: affordable housing. Client demands and industry regulations have encouraged real estate companies to build affordable houses while reducing carbon footprints.
The company has also built over 180 Schools of Tomorrow in Belgium in partnership with the Belgian government, focusing on sustainable buildings that also offer space for community use outside of school hours. It is already outpacing projections to reach its 2030 carbon emissions goal.
But Fautré knows the real estate industry can always do better and he’s banking on public-private partnerships (PPP) to fulfill social responsibilities. AG Real Estate has frequent meetings with state officials to devise long-term solutions for local markets.
"I have a dream that we can intervene in the PPP market for sustainable housing, affordable housing or even social housing. And everybody in this firm would be extremely proud of that," Fautré acknowledges.
Real estate is such a large industry that it often throws up new obstacles before long-term goals. He believes it’s important to leverage the international network of Ageas while nurturing partnerships with myriad local contractors.
Sights set on health care
Before joining as the CEO of AG Real Estate, Fautré worked in a similar capacity at Cofinimmo where he first invested in healthcare properties. When the pandemic put everything in disarray and the parking business took a temporary hit, Fautré redirected his focus on health care again.
AG Real Estate recently acquired Anima, a senior care service provider, which will allow it to expand into healthcare operations. The Anima acquisition will allow AG Real Estate to experiment and deploy innovative technology at a rapid pace and Fautré hopes this starts a new chapter in the company’s journey to provide sustainable and affordable housing across generations.
This is an unusual, smart and strategically important transaction, I think, for the industry.
But real estate developers betting on assisted living facilities is still a new thing in Europe and Fautré had to go the extra mile to convince the shareholders. He was able to provide assurances that this was a stable and solid investment, and the employees are happy with the move as well.
"It’s out of the box thinking," Fautré concludes. "This is an unusual, smart and strategically important transaction, I think, for the industry."