A DONEGAL man is responsible for managing a £1.5 billion real estate portfolio across the UK.
Damien Sharkey is managing director of HUB, the London-based residential developer, which is building 5,000 new homes for sale and rent aimed at middle-income workers.
A former pupil of Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola (PCC), Damien (36) is the son of Patrick and Agnes Sharkey, Lower Carrowcannon, Falcarragh. His twin brother, Declan, is an architect in London. Damien is also a qualified architect.
“I initially came to London for a year’s work experience sixteen years ago and stayed. When I first left home I was told that if you have a little bit of common sense and work hard you’ll do well. That’s the best piece of advice that my mum and dad ever gave me,” he said.
It’s Tuesday lunch-time and Damien is talking to the Donegal News from his offices in Duke Street overlooking St James’s Square in London.
The office reopened on Monday after the latest three-month lockdown
“There’s a real buzz about the place after what has been a very strange year. There’s real positivity and momentum with a lot of investors trying to get into the sector we’re in at the moment,” he said.
Developer HUB is in the process of bringing more than 5,000 new homes – including homes for sale, for rent, co-living accommodation and student flats to thirteen sites across London, Birmingham, Leeds and Edinburgh.
“When I first joined HUB seven years ago it was a very new business in London and was set up with the intention of doing property development in a slightly different way,” he explained.
At that time there was a huge focus on developers building homes in the centre of London and selling them for a vast amount of money, making them unaffordable to 99 per cent of the population.
“We had a simple idea – to build homes in the greater London area which were affordable to Londoners and not just overseas investors. We raised some money and bought our first site from NAMA in 2013.
“That first site in the Docklands was for 360 homes. Now we have 5,000 homes in development across the UK,” he said.
The largest site is in Birmingham (2,000 homes) with two in Leeds (900 homes), one in Edinburgh and the remaining nine sites across London.
“We were lucky to employ the right people while we got the right investors to back us. We’re very passionate about what we do and coming from an architectural background I’ve great pride in the quality of what we deliver.
“We don’t sell sites. We build all our own homes and sell them or rent them ourselves,” he said.
Over the past decade HUB has built up a successful track record of delivering well-designed, community-focused residential schemes with a particular focus on the build to rent sector.
“We would hold between 200 and 500 homes in each multi-storey development and rent them long-term,” he said.
That Institutional Funding model allowed HUB to fund and construct the first build to rent scheme in the UK in 2013.
“We established a business in a sector which has grown hugely in the UK in recent years but it hasn’t been easy. It’s been hard work with long hours and lots of sleepless nights,” he said.
Damien and his team work closely with many Irish contractors on sites across the UK.
“It’s not just because I’m Irish but they know how to build properly and it’s a sign of the times that many builders we use in London and the UK are Irish,” he said.
While Damien declined to say what the annual turnover was at HUB he was happy to share the value of property the London-based residential developer has under development.
“The GDV (Gross Development Value) is about £1.5 billion. We’ve finished 1,015 units with 4,000 under development. Each project takes about five years from when he sign off on a piece to land until it’s completed. It’s quite a complicated process,” he explained.
It’s a long way from summers spent in his dad’s joinery workshop in Falcarragh.
“Dad had a joinery business for more than forty years and just retired last year. I spent a year with him after school before going off to the University of Ulster to study architecture.
“I came to London to do one year’s work experience before doing a Masters – part-time in Cardiff. I did my diploma here and worked as an architect for five years.
“I was interested in the whole cycle – raising the money, getting planning permission, designing the scheme, building the houses and selling them – so I decided to pursue my passion for property development,” he said.
The biggest challenge facing Damien and his team at present is finding suitable development sites.
“We responded to Covid, we responded to Brexit – there’s always new challenges. We’re taking investors money and we’re using that to build. It’s our responsibility to make them a profit – and ourselves too.
Not typical house builders
“Money is important but we passionately believe in doing things the right way. We’re not typical house builders and we’re proud of our big numbers. We’re a residential led developer but there’s offices, hotels, shops and new public parks included as part of some of these projects.
“We look at large scale regeneration projects, particularly outside London. We like to go somewhere where we feel we can make a difference. We target areas we can give a new lease of life and added value. We’re not afraid to go somewhere and create new benchmarks in terms of quality and value. We really believe in what we do and the quality of what we deliver. We believe that we are trailblazers in the areas we build in,” he said.
“Birmingham (2,000 houses) is a huge project for us but I’ve three excellent partners and together we make this business work,” he said.
A year has passed since Damien has managed to get back to Donegal but in that time he’s become the father of a baby boy, Archie, with his wife Francesca.
“I’m looking forward to taking Archie over the Donegal,” he said.
Uncertainty is the biggest challenge facing many businesses and Damien is delighted that issues over Brexit have been resolved.
“I won’t give you my personal views but, professionally, I’m glad it’s been resolved. Businesses can respond to most things but uncertainty makes it all that little bit harder.
“We’ve just had the best six months we’ve ever had which is a strange thing to say in lockdown,” he said.