Bell Partners’ Lili Dunn on Leadership in Tough Times

MHN’s 2021 Executive of the Year finds purpose in creating communities to be proud of.

Lili Dunn

Lili Dunn, president of Bell Partners, was honored as Executive of the Year as part of Multi-Housing News’ annual Excellence Awards. Dunn noted during her keynote speech that the challenges she and her team have faced since early 2020 have changed everything for her, the company, and the rest of the nation.

“Never can I remember a time when we faced so many health, social, political and economic challenges all at one time,” she said. Thankfully, the crisis also clearly demonstrated for her the resilience of the apartment market.

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During the pandemic, while real estate companies across the nation may have all been in the same storm, many were not in same boat. Dunn saw that businesses with a long-term perspective, thoughtful strategic plans and, most importantly, with a strong culture and deep relationships were able to withstand the market shock and differentiate themselves.

“It’s easy to look good when the wind is behind your back, it’s during the uncertain and challenging times when our character and strength are tested,” said Dunn.

The difficulties caused by the pandemic helped Dunn clarify her purpose at the firm: create communities that residents are proud to call home.

“What an honor and a privilege, we affect people’s lives,” she said. “During this difficult time, we demonstrated the true essence of who we are, of our purpose and our values.”

Growing Up in Real Estate

Dunn grew up immersed in real estate, learning to love the industry from an early age. She would often join her father, a developer and broker of Upstate New York residential real estate, on tours of properties across the region. While in college, Dunn sold houses, leased apartments and created her own market survey company.

Although Dunn has only had three jobs in her 30-plus-year career, each position was an important learning experience, and they all have continued to help her grow as a leader. She joined pension fund advisor Richard Ellis just before the market collapsed in 1990.

“I learned the hard way that the market can change very quickly and many times you don’t see it coming,” said Dunn. “It’s important to be prepared and quickly adjust to weather the storm.” She and 95 percent of Richard Ellis’ U.S. team were casualties of a market shift that no one had anticipated.

One of her partners at Richard Ellis took the time to open an important door for her at Trammell Crow Residential. She developed a talent for hiring great and different people, encouraging respectful debate and excellence in all they did for the firm. Dunn focused the team on strategic planning, delivering on their promises and taking thoughtful risks to innovate and evolve the business. The firm was worth $300 million at its IPO in 1993 and hovered around $17 billion when she left in 2010.

When Dunn joined Bell 11 years ago, the firm was largely focused on the Southeast, and most of its capital came from high-net-worth investors. The firm now manages about 70,000 apartments across the country for clients and investors and represents institutional capital from around the world. This year, Bell expects to complete about $5 billion in investment volume.

Despite the turmoil of the past few years, Dunn was surprised when this past spring, the residential market unexpectedly accelerated to levels she had never seen before. She noted rent growth was more than 20 percent and occupancy had increased to 96 percent. Her handpicked team was able to quickly adjust and capture some extraordinary opportunities.

The most rewarding experiences for Dunn over the past 30 years have been creating special cultures, finding and developing great people and building lasting relationships. She realizes we may not all agree but believes we are all aligned.

“You can go faster alone but we go farther together,” said Dunn. “Plus, it’s more fun.”

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