When it comes to British commercial property, folk don’t come earlier educated than Phillippa Prongué. ‘Pip’, to friends, is as English as a Barbour jacket and Hunter wellies. The surname? Pip’s husband is French.

Peter Bill

Peter Bill

Twelve months ago, she established another French connection. The 47-year-old mother of a 15- and 14-year-old, who started out as a retail agent in 1998, then spent 15 years on the property side at Kier, was appointed managing director of Linkcity; no, not a shuttle bus operator but a subsidiary of French behemoth Bouygues. Prongué is running projects with a gross development value of £1.6bn, which the company plans to expand – more of which later.

First, what Pip learned at her father’s knee. Peter Morgan was retail director at DTZ and literally (co-)wrote the book on retail development in 1988, titled Retail Development. She recalls: “When I was growing up, I remember going to visit Daddy at work when at Vogue House and being taken to the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory for lunch in Hanover Square. Dad would always call it research. I was thinking how great it would be to do a job where shopping and eating were classified as research. We used to holiday a lot in the Yorkshire Dales when Dad was letting the Metrocentre in Gateshead. We never went on a journey that didn’t involve a diversion for a ‘site visit’.”

Now, Prongué has a grown-up task ahead. “My personal ambition is to double the size of the development business,” she says. Linkcity contributed one third of Bouygues UK’s last-reported turnover in 2021 of £484m, on which £1m profit was declared.

“I’ve really enjoyed my first year here,” she says. “We’ve had success securing three new development sites. Now, I am keen to grow our partnerships with local authorities. I’m also keen to secure more open-market developments. We’re focused on all things that encompass the living sector.” Her sales pitch? “We can act quickly and decisively on sites.”

Sizeable business

Bouygues, founded in 1952, has been established in London since 1997, behaving like a quietly browsing elephant. To get the measure of the business still run by family member Martin Bouygues, imagine the size and spread of a firm that owned ITV, McAlpine, Skanska, Landsec, British Land and Virgin Mobile. Bouygues has 200,000 employees, operates in 81 countries and made €973m (£860m) profit last year on sales of €54bn (£48bn).

Phillippa Prongue

Prongué: says Linkcity “can act quick quickly and decisively on sites’

So, why has the elephant not made more of a splash in the UK yet? After all, in this country it comprises not only Linkcity but Bouygues Travaux Publics (civil engineering), Equans (facilities management), VSL (bridges) and Colas (roads and airports maintenance) – a conglomeration that makes it the largest non-British employer in the UK.

“Bouygues is part of the French establishment,” says one market observer. “It is cautious, conservative and not given to boasting” – an elephant not normally given to trumpeting.

Paul Morrell, the government’s former chief construction adviser, who has worked with Bouygues in the UK and overseas, says: “No one who is paying attention should be that surprised at the scale of the business. They have been heavily involved in the UK’s hospital programme in the past and are as involved in both Hinkley Point and HS2 now. It is true that they are not flashy, and I see that as a virtue, but they would like to be better known.”

Linkcity has developed 4,500 homes and more than 9,000 purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) units. It is building close to 700 homes on the Tustin Estate in Southwark, south London; while across the river in Newham, it is developing a £600m six-acre scheme in Canning Town with more than 1,000 homes plus 330,000 sq ft of retail and leisure. And in Colchester, it is building five PBSA blocks with more than 1,200 bedrooms for the Uliving brand.

What would Prongué like to help expand her business? More of the same type of deals please, tout de suite.

Peter Bill is a journalist and the author of Planet Property and Broken Homes