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Property Development with Luxury in mind

Business | Published:

It's not often you see a woman on a building site and while celebrity property developers like Sarah Beeny and Kirsty Allsopp have gone some way to breaking the stereotype, the two directors of Jersey's latest property development firm have been quietly proving themselves for two decades. Now, Jojo DiCasa and Jane Cook have gone public with the help of branding and marketing consultant Tess Hartmann. Gwyn Garfield-Bennett went to meet them.

DiCasa. Veslet Lodge, Le Mont Sorsoleil, St. Lawrence. Jane Cook and Jojo DiCasa. Picture: JON GUEGAN (24850102)

DICASA is a top-end property development business with a difference. It creates turn-key properties that are move-in ready for busy high-net-worth individuals and families. ‘We do everything,’ says Jojo DiCasa, ‘from development to interior, to anything we perceive a client or family might need.’

Ms DiCasa and business partner Jane Cook have been property developing and working in interior design for two decades – and their experience shows. The house isn’t just furnished, ‘It comes with everything: knives and forks, washing powder, and dressing gowns, toilet rolls, towels, everything – all you’d need is your family and your clothes. But again, we’d organise all of that for you, organise your schools, your doctors, your dentist, so that takes away all the stress,’ says Ms DiCasa.

Most of their clients are business people looking to move to Jersey, and not just from the UK. They’ve had a fair bit of interest from international clients, including Switzerland.

It’s lifestyle concierge management, said brand consultant Tessa Hartmann: ‘These people are super busy and so what the girls are offering, in terms of everything, seems to tick a lot of boxes. The concept of branded residences first originated in Asia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, because their directors were moved around all the time. And so I think that’s where the idea came from – to create a brand that people could associate with luxury living, a luxury service and luxury lifestyle management to bring it all under one roof.’

The two women work on behalf of an investor and with eight properties in their portfolio (six are still in progress), you realise that nobody would invest that amount of money unless they were very confident about their skills.

For over 20 years the pair have been developing their own properties, dressing and staging them, as Ms DiCasa explained: ‘We were doing it in England for a lot of celebrities, but it was all very low key, because people don’t like you to advertise, and then I went through a divorce, changed my name back to an old family name and we came over to Jersey working for our investor.

‘In England it was more dressing houses for clients. Here it’s the concept from the ground upwards, so you are buying into the whole brand rather than just the interiors.’

The investor, who wants to remain anonymous, isn’t looking for a quick return, but the properties are already showing their value.

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‘Even if you look at the value of the business, from when we bought the properties to what this one house is now,’ explained Mrs Hartmann, ‘already your asset value has trebled.’

Ms Cook added: ‘I don’t think the only priority is necessarily to make money for our investor, it’s also to restore beautiful properties on the Island of Jersey.

‘I think there’s a love for the Island, a love for some of the properties. And that’s why we are very sympathetic in how we restore and dress them as well. We’re trying to make the best of homes that were once fantastic in the 60s and 70s. We’re trying to breathe life back into those homes and that’s something that the investor has a passion for.’

Ms DiCasa agreed: ‘We want to encourage people to live here forever. We’re not thinking that people are going to buy these homes and spend two weeks a year here. So it’s about giving back to the community and really investing in the Island. From the joiners to the local craftsmen, everything is local. As a brand we can say we are heavily invested in Jersey because we are really supporting local industry and the craftsmanship has been phenomenal.’

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DiCasa has worked with the same team right from the start. Rok Construction, who don’t usually work on residential properties, are their main contractor, with Pastella Kitchens and Bathrooms, Trinity Joinery and Axis Mason architects. Mrs Hartmann puts the successful working partnerships down to the fact that Ms DiCasa and Ms Cook had gone to the contractors with a comprehensive five-year business plan: ‘It’s not just somebody needing an extension and saying “I might want to do a bit there, but I’ve got no money, so I might do another bit next year,” they had a brand and said this is essentially a five-year project, are you in?’

There is no doubt that the finished product is stunning, with a minute attention to detail. Part of that success is because they are women.

‘Being a woman and knowing what a woman wants is a completely different concept,’ said Ms DiCasa. ‘You find the storage you need, you have everything from your ironing board to your iron. She doesn’t have to think about it, it’s all there and she can concentrate on building her life.

‘This house didn’t flow,’ adds Ms DiCasa, talking about the St Lawrence property we are conducting the interview at.

‘We are adamant about finding out how to make a house work. Sometimes we’ll be sat here at 10 o’clock at night thinking, because we do the design, then we go to the architects. And then, of course, when we’re dressing we move in to make sure everything is working perfectly. So we adjust to living in it for three weeks and knowing how everything works so that when the client comes, we know everything.’

It’s their experience of working on properties in the UK, combined with having their own families, which helps, as Ms Cook explained: ‘You can look around a house, and then you can see how you would need it to be if you have a family. We made sure if you walk in the door you’ve got somewhere to put your wellies and we try and think of everything, but also offer flexible living because families are so much more flexible. We try and create the space to deliver that.

‘We’re not just throwing cushions on sofas. There’s a lot of design and costing that goes into this. And most of the properties, if not all of them, have an interest with Heritage as well. So we can’t just do anything, we have to stick to their guidelines and work with them very closely. So we have to take it very seriously’

While understanding what a woman looks for in a property is a definite advantage, the pair have had to deal with some old-fashioned views about women in business – particularly on the building site.

‘I think that was the only tough thing. When we first arrived they weren’t used to women developers,’ said Ms DiCasa. ‘And I think it was quite a shock to them because the developers that are on the Island are all male, and all of a sudden to have two women in hardhats. But we’ve earnt their respect and they’re amazing.

‘We spend most of our time in working boots and hard hats, and literally at the architects, planning and all of that, it is very hard work. It’s not a glamorous job, whereas you look at interior designers, they do have that nice bit. We do the whole way through. We project manage everything, every worker, every builder, we’re on site every day.’

Ms Cook added: ‘Some of the architects had some very old-school thoughts about women in business that we have had to overcome. But we have. We didn’t ditch those relationships, we’ve worked with them and we’ve got new-formed relationships with them now and respect.’

Mrs Hartmann has also seen the attitude first hand: ‘Chauvinism, I think, is something that women can never escape from. It’s just a question of how you tackle it psychologically. I think the girls just ignore it now, a) because they’ve got no time, and b) because actually, they’ve proved their worth already, so it’s kind of irrelevant.

‘But in Jersey, when I speak to people and say it’s two female directors, they are gobsmacked, and that is, I think, something that Jersey is really bad at – that kind of archaic view of modern-day power women. It’s even in the questions they ask. There are questions that you would never ask a man, but yet they would ask a woman, and you think, why is that? If there were two male directors sitting here with that amount of money invested in them, because they have a track record, you’d be saying that’s great.’

The women have chosen a variety of properties across the Island.

‘We wanted to have a selection so that you have one that’s quite modern and contemporary, this is very family orientated,’ said Ms DiCasa. ‘The next one we’re doing is like an old gentleman’s residence, then we’ve got a beach house, then we’ve got more of a stately home. So we’re covering every aspect. And also the thing that we want to be able to do, if you come in and you love the house, but the furniture isn’t to your taste, we can change it for you. You often find that with a lot of interior designers they stamp their mark on it. Whereas we don’t, we’re doing it for the house.’

Ms DiCasa and Ms Cook work out of their headquarters, a converted church in Gorey and it’s there that they have a showroom of their furniture.

The properties they buy are ‘tired’, and they not only have the vision to see beyond that, but to create something special, as Ms DiCasa said: ‘Quite often when you see a house that’s been developed it’s soulless when you walk around it, and we never wanted to have that. We like to feel that we’ve created a home.’

There is a global demand for this kind of concept, which has taken off in America and South Africa, as well as Asia. The women have had lots of requests from people asking for them to work on their properties, but for now they are saying no. It’s possible that eventually the concept might move out of the Island and expand, but in the meantime, the two women are flat out with the properties they currently have in the portfolio.

‘We have proved ourselves and we will continue proving ourselves,’ said Ms DiCasa. The proof of that is definitely in their finished products.

Gwyn Garfield-Bennett

By Gwyn Garfield-Bennett
Business Editor

Gwyn is a highly experienced journalist having worked in UK national TV for the BBC and ITN, as well as running her own magazine publishing business, freelancing for national newspapers and UK magazines. She has a CIPR Diploma in Public relations, excellent digital skills and is an experienced digital marketing practitioner. Gwyn is also an author of several books.

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