Career view: Katherine McCullough, development director at Merchant Land

There are many ways to make a career in the UK housebuilding industry and as Katherine McCullough tells us, the unconventional approach doesn’t stop a talented person reaching a very senior position.

Katherine, can you please tell us what brought you to the property industry initially and how you made it to your current role?

Well, I have to say I fell into the property industry rather accidentally. I’ve always been entrepreneurial and have a strong work ethic, but I’ve also remained open to new opportunities and they have led me to where I am now.

When I graduated from Oxford with a degree in history, I was absolutely determined not to have a career at all! I didn’t apply for any grad schemes and just took an admin role at RBS on the basis I could leave at 5.00pm every day and enjoy life outside work. As it turned out, the role was in the property division. I ended up getting promoted a number of times because I was good with clients and business development. My clients were all property developers; they were fantastic company and I ended up more interested in what they were doing than banking and could see that I might be good at it too.

When the financial crisis hit in 2007, I knew it would be a good time to dive in. So, for two to three years I worked 70-hour weeks and embraced every opportunity I could. In 2010, my business started to really lift off. I then met the owners of a UK-based commodity trading company in 2013, and worked with them to rebrand and restructure their business as Merchant Land. Over the last five years, Merchant Land has continued to grow from strength to strength.

What does your current role of development director involve and what are the skills and experience that it requires?

I am the founder of the UK brand and I oversee absolutely everything that is involved with a growing team. I would say in some ways I’m a ‘Jill of all trades and a master of none’ but I do know how to handle myself, what I want, what the business needs and also what my shareholders and board want.

We play things by ear and are shrewd and opportunistic, but nothing like how an MBA or ‘dragons’ den’ would portray business. The trick is perseverance, a sense of humour and compassion. In this industry, you need an eye for money and detail and know how to prioritise and multitask.

What are your favourite aspects of working in the housebuilding industry?

I don’t really see myself as a housebuilder – I’m an SME developer and investor. What I love the most is the variety, challenge and the humour each week involves. This week I’ve been in meetings organising a sales trip to Saudi Arabia whilst also handling the digital marketing, tax planning, interior design as well as construction legals and assessing potential new sites to invest in. It really is top to bottom, nose to tail.

Are there mentors and influencers in your career who were especially important?

Everyone I meet influences me in one way or another. I’m a talkative person and try to get to know everyone I come across.  I have picked up all sorts of insights over the years from all sorts of people at all ends of the property and construction spectrum.

I also have a huge amount of respect for the trustees and shareholders on my board as they have a global and multi-sector business investment perspective and are also incredibly nice people.

Is there some simple advice you would give anyone considering housebuilding for a career?

I would say be genuine and work really hard and don’t constantly judge your progress against what your peer group at any particular time are doing. Looking back there were times when I took risks and for two to three years there was no evident or immediate pay off. But I had confidence in myself and the overall general direction I was heading in and it’s just worked. Sometimes it gets tough with the company having grown so quickly, but I am extremely proud of what I have created and think enjoying what you do is the most important thing regardless of what that is.

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