Emma Luyt, joint CEO of JLL Sub-Saharan Africa. Picture: Supplied
Emma Luyt, joint CEO of JLL Sub-Saharan Africa. Picture: Supplied

From cuisine to commercial real estate may seem an unlikely transition, but Emma Luyt is used to wearing many hats.

When Luyt worked as a junior chef in Dublin, London and Paris in the early 2000s, the cut-throat world of commercial real estate was the furthest thing from her mind.

Yet today she heads the Sub-Saharan African business of New York Stock Exchange-listed JLL, one of the largest real estate investment and advisory firms in the world. Luyt was appointed as co-CEO of JLL’s Joburg-based regional operations in April alongside Peter Harris, previously JLL’s CFO and COO. She’s also at the helm of the Fortune 500 company’s interior architecture design arm in SA, Tétris Design & Build.

Luyt’s journey from working in kitchens to running JLL started 18 years ago when she returned to SA after a five-year culinary stint in Europe. A chance meeting with an interior designer friend prompted her to enrol for a three-year BA in interior design at the Greenside Design Centre in Joburg.

"I realised I was more interested in creating beautiful art pieces on a plate than in cooking and knew it was time for a career change," she says. "And though the thought of starting again from scratch as a student was daunting, it felt like the right move."

After completing her studies in 2005, Luyt landed a plum job at Head Interiors, one of SA’s premier interior design firms at the time. In 2009, while she was managing the design of the new Sandton headquarters for ENSafrica, the law firm convinced Luyt to join it to develop its branding and marketing capabilities.

"I knew nothing about working in the corporate world but embraced the challenge. So I learnt on the fly and gained a huge amount of business experience."

Luyt returned to Head Interiors three years later as the firm’s business development manager. A few years later, JLL, at the time a client of Head Interiors, asked Luyt to set up the SA division of its wholly owned subsidiary, Tétris Design & Build. She started Tétris with three employees in 2014.

Under her direction, the company has grown to 58 full-time staff and is now one of the biggest players in SA’s interior architecture design space. In addition, JLL’s local staff tally is around 60.

Luyt, who is known for her fearless, forthright manner and entrepreneurial flair, may not have followed the traditional route to the top of what historically has been a male-dominated industry. But she’s unfazed: "I may not have a real estate investment background, but I know how to make a business work well — internally and externally."

Though effectively wearing two hats — one as MD of Tétris and the other as co-CEO of JLL — Luyt regards her new role as a natural expansion, given that the two brands have always operated under one umbrella.

"My focus is to bridge the two disciplines by creating a cradle-to-grave offering."

She believes JLL has a competitive advantage because it offers a one-stop-shop real estate solution: research, finding and leasing space; managing property portfolios and valuations; and spatial planning, design, building and outfitting.

The pandemic has hit the commercial real estate market hard. Luyt says Covid-induced changes in the way people work mean that corporates now have to carefully reconsider their real estate needs. One of the pressing issues for JLL clients is how much office space they will need post-Covid.

"There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how remote working strategies will affect future space requirements," she says.

Most companies are looking to scale back on square metreage when leases come up for renewal. Many are also keen to negotiate more flexible lease terms with landlords in line with new work styles. The key challenge is to help clients reconfigure smaller spaces more effectively to ensure a healthy, happy and productive workforce. Luyt expects aesthetics, among other things, to become more important to those starting to trickle back to the office.

She says: "It’s crucial that the post-Covid office is attractive, comfortable and visually interesting — not only to ensure employee wellbeing but also for talent retention."

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