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Leading women in property: Meet Ulana van Biljon, operations chief at Emira

With over a quarter of a century of property experience, she’s one of the behind-the-scenes stalwarts in the industry.  

With August being Women’s Month, The Property Pod is profiling leading women in South Africa’s commercial property sector.

The industry comparatively has a lot more women in executive positions, in stark contrast to other major sectors of the economy. However, it has not always been this way.

In this episode, we speak to one of the most experienced women in the local property sector – Ulana van Biljon, COO of JSE-listed Emira Property Fund.

She has been an executive director at Emira since 2011, but has a career in the industry spanning some 26 years. This makes her one of the forerunners in breaking the glass ceiling in the property sector, which still has some way to go in terms of greater women’s empowerment

Van Biljon shares her story and passion for property in this interview. Below are some highlights. Listen to the full podcast in the link above or download it from iono, Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Highlights

“As COO of Emira I am mostly responsible for all those daily operational functions of a company. Of course it also includes the executing and the implementing of our strategy. But I think the most important thing is to make sure that those operational results are achieved.”

“Mentoring and managing most of the staff here at Emira is my responsibility, and it also includes legal and marketing matters. So, for me it’s such a multifaceted role, and it absolutely suits me, and my skillset and my experience.”

Emira has been one of the top-performing listed property funds over the past year …

Emira itself [has] changed quite significantly over the past few years. Previously the portfolio was more heavily invested in the office sector, but now it’s less than 25% of our total assets. Now we’ve got a quality very balanced portfolio, which is more diverse between offices, retail and industrial – and we’ve got one residential property. So, 78 directly-held here in South Africa with a value of around about R10 billion.”

“We’ve also got some partnerships in the USA, 11 grocery-anchored open-air convenience shopping centres … So, I think the reason for us being one of the top performers the past year is also because the Emira portfolio is structured, and it’s adapted to deliver stability and sustainability through, especially, the past year, year-and-a-half.”

How did you get into the property industry and have you always been in this sector?

I actually started as a human resources officer at Sanlam. I studied BCom at the University of [the] Free State and in January 1998 I was offered a human resources position. I’ve always had a very good skill set in people, and how to deal with people. But while I was at Sanlam and especially in human resources, my focus was properties and I was being transferred to [what was] in those days Sanlam Properties.

“But then I got married in 1995 and when we moved to Durban unexpectedly, our MD at the time, Barnes van der Walt, said to me: ‘Ulana, I’m actually going to make you a centre manager’ – and this was in the midst of a major redevelopment at Musgrave Centre. I asked him: ‘What do I know about property?’ He said: ‘Ulana, you have the people skills – and all the rest will come.’”

Besides her time at Sanlam Properties, and Emira currently, Van Biljon has worked at Pangbourne Properties (which was later taken over by JSE-listed Resilient Property Fund) and at Melrose Arch.

“Now it’s unbelievable that this September I will have been at Emira for 10 years.”

“I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve really had a lot of memorable moments. They differ – from letting, to mentoring staff, to [being] part of Emira changing to a diversified fund.”

“But maybe if I can highlight two. The first one was when I was appointed executive director to the Emira board. I was one of the first female executives – and that was in 2012.”

“[The other] highlight is when all my efforts over the past years were recognised and I was honoured and awarded the Standard Bank Top Woman Award in the property category in 2019 …

“I cannot tell you how ecstatic I was. I thought my heart was going to explode and I just needed to tell my husband.”

Van Biljon’s advice for up-and-coming women considering getting into the property sector?

I think what is very important is that women must take their opportunities. We are given opportunities, but we must take them, and we must show that we are skilled.”

“It’s extremely important to lead by example and to also show the outputs. When I started – and it’s still a very male-dominated industry – I embraced it from day one. I didn’t work against it. For me it was important that I do it on my own terms and that I stay true to being myself as a female.”

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