If GPS had been available in cars back in the 1980s, it probably wouldn’t have been too pleased with the Bell family’s beach outings. Instead of going straight from their home in Greensboro, N.C., to the pristine shores of North Carolina, Steven D. Bell, chairman and CEO of Greensboro-based Bell Partners, took his clan, including his three children, on some detours. “Our trips to the beach weren’t from destination A to destination B,” says Jon Bell, president of Bell Partners and Steven’s oldest son. Instead, the family stopped and visited Bell properties along the way. Most kids would have gotten fussy. Not the young Bell. He absorbed the industry like a sponge. In his teens, he read trade magazines and wrote letters to industry bigwigs such as Henry Faison, a leading Southern developer and CEO of Atlanta-based Faison & Associates, expressing interest in a future job. “I knew my entire life that I wanted to work in real estate,” Jon says. “I started charting out my course early on.”

And things are going almost entirely according to plan. Since Jon moved into the president’s spot last year, he has taken a growing role in steering the company into the future. Today, Bell Partners has a portfolio of 43,000 of mostly Class A and B units, with some Cs, spanning across the Eastern United States, from Boston to Columbus, Ohio, from Texas to Florida, with plans to grow by 2,500 to 3,500 units in 2011. Despite this, his father’s influence as the company patriarch remains large.

Meanwhile, Bell is adding REIT-level talent to its team and upgrading its systems and processes while trying to maintain a dedicated site-level approach to operations that Steven Bell has cultivated in 37 years in commercial real estate. Add in the ability to satisfy employees, residents, and a large number of investors and owners, and you have the makings of a top-notch operations platform. But what the Bells have to figure out now is where to take that platform next—and maintain a balance between astronomical growth and a personal, familial approach to business.