Lili Dunn, president and CEO, Bell Partners.
Laura Hatcher Lili Dunn, president and CEO, Bell Partners.

Lili Dunn was broke and scared. Burdened with student loan payments and struggling to make ends meet in Chicago, she was sharing a studio apartment with three other young women, sleeping on a mattress from the Salvation Army, eating ramen noodles, and doing her best to dress professionally on a meager budget. She remembers ogling hair care products at the pharmacy, dreaming of one day being able to afford Pantene. She remembers how painful it felt when a group of women wearing fancy suits and carrying Coach bags strode by her and laughed at her clothing and well-used briefcase.

“I vowed to myself I would never be in this position again,” she says. “I threw myself into work so that I could have a secure financial base.”

Not raised to be a victim, Dunn overcame heartbreak and learned the value of focus, hard work, and persistence early on. Her mother, a renowned dancer in New York, died when Dunn was 8. Her father, a squadron commander in World War II, taught her to have a positive impact, no matter what. “In my house, growing up, it was, ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir,’ ‘no excuse, sir,’” she says. “You embraced the situation you had, and you worked hard and took care of those who needed you, and got it done.”

Now the president and CEO of Bell Partners, a North Carolina–based multifamily investment and management company with more than 85,000 apartment homes under management, Dunn can afford to stock all her bathrooms with Pantene products—and she does (something her five sons love to tease her about). The first Coach bag she ever bought is still in her closet.

“I will never forget what it was like to be scared,” Dunn says—and she tries to instill this in her five boys. “I will never forget where I came from and the values that drove me. And I always make it a point to help others when I can. Sometimes just a simple act can make a big difference in someone’s life.”

Dunn stepped into the CEO role at Bell Partners last year after serving as president for six years and chief investment officer for six years before that. In the last year alone, under Dunn’s leadership, Bell expanded its portfolio by approximately 15,000 apartments, completed more than $100 million in renovations, and raised $1.3 billion in equity commitments for the firm’s eighth value-add fund. Her acumen at raising capital is remarkable, and her people skills are the stuff of legend.

“Lili’s leadership capabilities are exceptional,” says Joe Cannon, executive vice president of portfolio management for Bell Partners. “Her personal approach to leadership and the culture she fosters are truly the difference makers in terms of furthering Bell’s success. She is able to connect authentically and deeply with her team and all of our constituents. The personal care and authenticity she brings to the table are differentiating capabilities that unite the team to accomplish more than they otherwise could.”

Real estate comes naturally to Dunn, who started working in her father’s development and brokerage office in Upstate New York at 13. Even before that, she was always happy to ride along when her father took detours to visit properties on the way to dinner or family events.

“Most kids would be very annoyed by this,” she says, “but I loved the business from the start. I always wanted to be in residential real estate because it feels so personal to me. This is where people live, where they gather strength and make memories. We affect people’s lives—what an amazing opportunity it is to be in this business.”

Dunn got her real estate license when she was 18. While she was earning her bachelor’s in business administration at the University of Michigan, she sold houses, leased apartments, and created a business selling apartment market survey information. After she graduated, she joined Richard Ellis (then a pension fund adviser) before moving to Trammell Crow Residential, which spun a division off into what would become real estate investment trust AvalonBay Communities, where she worked for 20 years.

As managing director at AvalonBay, Dunn was responsible for national transactions of roughly 60,000 apartment units valued at approximately $6.5 billion, helped raise and oversee the company’s discretionary institutional investment vehicles with total equity commitments of $730 million, and helped lead the company through an IPO. “Our team took a decentralized development company with a value of about $400 million public in November 1993,” Dunn says. “And when I left in 2010 to come to Bell Partners, AvalonBay’s value was almost $10 billion. It was an incredible journey with a wonderful group of talented people.”

Leaving AvalonBay for Bell Partners after 20 years was a “very hard move,” Dunn says; it was a risk to leave such a well-established and recognized company, but she was excited about the opportunity to help a 40-year-old regionally focused family company funded with high-net-worth capital evolve into a best-in-class national powerhouse. Bell now has nine corporate offices and 2,000 associates across the United States and has completed almost $20 billion in apartment transactions, largely on behalf of global institutional investors.

“Lili has taken Bell from being a very strong regional partner to a national platform,” says Doug Bibby, who retired last year after 21 years as president of the National Multifamily Housing Council. “She has built a very solid team that has been together for quite some time—which, to me, speaks loudly—and she’s leading Bell into a very promising present and even more promising future.”

Bibby attributes much of Dunn’s success to her rare blend of people skills, leadership skills, and financial skills. “When you’re talking with her, you feel like she’s got her concentration fixed on you. She makes great eye contact. She listens. When you’re with her, you’re her focus.”

Being around people is what energizes and inspires Dunn the most. She has a big heart and little tolerance for unkind people. The best compliment she’s ever received is that she takes the time to care.

In this, Bell Partners chief operating officer Cindy Clare says Dunn exemplifies the company’s brand promise, “We Care. We Deliver.” Dunn personally welcomes all new associates with a monthly onboarding call, and, when she visits properties, she makes a point of meeting with everyone, from the groundskeeper to the community manager. “Whether interacting with investors, clients, residents, or associates, Lili truly cares about people.”

The first thing Melissa A. Quackenbush, senior portfolio manager, real estate, for the Public School Employees’ Retirement System investment office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, noticed about Dunn was the energy and positivity she brings to every conversation. “Lili Dunn is one heck of a human being,” Quackenbush says. “For me and many other women, she has been and continues to be a role model on both a professional and personal level.”

That vow Dunn made as a struggling young professional is reverberating exponentially, through Bell Partners and well beyond.

“The most rewarding experience at Bell Partners is helping to create and foster our special culture of caring for others and delivering superior results,” Dunn says. “I am energized by finding and developing great people, helping them grow their careers, and building lasting relationships. I love to see people shine and encourage them to pay it forward, as hopefully I do, so they, too, can make a difference in someone else’s life.”