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Leading with empathy in the construction industry
Image / Agenda / Business

at the Image PWC Business Woman of the Year 2024 Awards at the Clayton Hotel-photo Kieran Harnett

Leading with empathy in the construction industry


by Victoria Stokes
27th Jun 2024

With over 20 years’ experience across sectors of the construction industry and a family legacy in the home building industry, Emma Maye has leveraged her heritage and creative vision to build a business empire. Meet the IMAGE PwC Overall Businesswoman of the Year 2024. 

“When I heard my name being called, I thought I’d won the raffle,” quips Emma Maye. We’re catching up on a Monday afternoon after Emma’s achievements in business were recognised.  On Friday night, she was honoured with the overall IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year award. 

The reality hasn’t quite sunk in. “To think of all the amazing shortlisted women in the room on the night… There were a huge amount of people who I look up to, so to even be considered for something like this is a great honour,” she shares. Emma’s humility says much about her character, but there’s little doubt she’s a worthy winner. The Dublin native is CEO of two companies: Ardale, a property development business, and Core Build, a builders provider chain. 

Unexpected turns

Her path into business certainly wasn’t easy. Emma studied hotel management in Cathal Brugha Street and later completed a post-grad in IT, but her career trajectory took an unexpected turn in 2008 when her father, renowned property developer Liam Maye, died suddenly at the age of 63. Emma was faced with the arduous task of sorting her father’s estate and gave up her job at Salesforce to manage the process. 

An economic crisis meant the value of her father’s assets crashed and what followed was a 10-year battle with NAMA to sort her father’s legacy debt. It was the start of Emma’s business journey; a baptism of fire by anyone’s standards. “I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. There was no downtime in any shape or form. I couldn’t see the wood from the trees and I just had to battle through,” she recalls. 

“I’m probably one of the only female property developers in the industry, but I’m doing things in my own way and I’m making a difference.” 

Given this experience, it’s little wonder that Emma believes one of the most important attributes in business is grit. Recalling the period, she says, “A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into those years. The conclusion of that was a definite turning point for me.” With a deal in place in 2013 and so much experience accumulated, Emma decided to set up a building firm, Ardale, with her husband Alan Hegarty. Core Build came later in 2016. 

Carving out a name

Since then, she’s had to work hard to carve out a name for herself, distinct from his legacy. “In the newspapers, I was constantly being referred to as Liam Maye’s daughter and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being allowed to stand on my own accomplishments,” she states. 

Emma has also had to contend with gender bias as the construction industry in Ireland is still hugely male-orientated. “I’m probably one of the only female property developers in the industry, but I’m doing things in my own way and I’m making a difference.”

Emma says letting her values do the talking rather than her gender has been key to countering that bias. “I’m a people person. I stick to my values and I’m very true to myself and the people I work with. I’m very lucky to be at a point in my career where I decide who I want to do business with. That means I can partner with people who have the same values as I have.” 

Leading with empathy

One thing is clear when speaking to Emma. She is a woman who leads with empathy. She sees it as an essential leadership skill. “Empathy is probably one of my biggest strengths,” she says. “One of the things I always do at the start of a meeting is ask people how they are. I look to see if there are any changes in people. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think it’s very important that the wellbeing of our staff is prioritised and they are looked after.” 

I’m very lucky to be at a point in my career where I decide who I want to do business with... I can partner with people who have the same values as I have.” 

at the Image PWC Business Woman of the Year 2024 Awards at the Clayton Hotel-photo Kieran Harnett

So what’s next for her? Unsurprisingly, she has ambitious plans. “We’re hoping to build a thousand houses in Wicklow and we have a new business that we’re working on that’s due to launch in the summer. I can’t say what it is yet I know that’s really annoying,” she laughs. 

Diversifying is also part of her long-term business strategy. One of the more recent endeavours she has embarked upon alongside her husband Alan is buying and turning around struggling businesses. She’s used her strong skills of lateral thinking, empathy and teamwork, to help businesses in other sectors out of trouble. One recent example is Westland Construction, which the pair bought out of examinership. 

Newfound confidence

Emma says she’s only recently found the confidence to lift her head above the parapet by agreeing to media interviews.“These awards mean so much to me,” says Emma, who remembers attending as a guest when her best friend Jenny Taaffe, who sadly passed away in 2019, was awarded IMAGE Digital Businesswoman of the Year in 2018. Emma hopes this newfound confidence will provide an opportunity for her to educate people on another topic she’s passionate about: dyslexia.

“Dyslexia has always been one of those challenges throughout my life and now I stand here speaking with you as a businesswoman, as a CEO of a company . . . having dyslexia doesn’t have to hold you back.” 

Emma got tested for dyslexia 12 years ago after struggling with it for years. Speaking immediately after her award win, she shared: “Dyslexia has always been one of those challenges throughout my life and now I stand here speaking with you as a businesswoman, as a CEO of a company to get recognised as a businesswoman… it’s incredible and it shows that having dyslexia doesn’t have to hold you back.” 

Emma has achieved so much on her business journey already, but in a way, it’s like she’s just getting started. “I was reflecting this morning before meeting with you,” she tells me, “I’m starting to write down a list of things I really want to achieve.” 

Watch this space.