Finding Capital is Still Biggest Challenge

Dunn talks to MHN about her new role at Bell Partners and what she will be working on for the company.

Greensboro, N.C.–Lili F. Dunn has joined Bell Partners Inc. as the firm’s chief investment officer. Dunn worked with AvalonBay Communities for 20 years and most recently served as the company’s senior vice president and managing director.

Bell Partners has invested capital for institutional and individual clients for about 35 years. The company oversees a portfolio of $4 billion of assets, which includes 60,000 apartments, 28 senior living communities and 4 million sq. ft. worth of office space. Most of their assets are located in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Southwest regions. Bell is currently the 10th largest apartment management company. It has bought over $5 billion worth of assets and sold $2 billion worth of assets with a realized investment return of over 20 percent. From 2006 to 2008, the company has distributed about 800 million to investors.

Dunn talks to MHN about her new role at Bell Partners and what she will be working on for the company.

MHN: How did you come to a decision to leave AvalonBay?

Dunn: It was a very difficult decision to leave AvalonBay after spending 20 years there and having created all those friendships. But I was really attracted to Bell’s strategic vision, entrepreneurial spirit and warm culture, which creates a very unique environment that I find inspiring. They have a history of providing returns on investment.

Over the last two to three years, while many of the real estate companies were retrenching during the recent downturn, Bell pursued a contrarian strategy and invested in the infrastructure and strengthened their platform in order to take advantage of the opportunities. I am joining a team that includes Bob Slater, formerly EVP of Operations from AvalonBay; Dhrubo Sircar, formerly Chief Information Officer from UDR; Erin Ditto, formerly SVP of property management operations from UDR and John Tomlinson, formerly Chief Accounting Officer from Colonial Properties Trust and others who have joined in the last three years. Together we will continue to enhance the company’s platform.

Bell is off to a good start with all these talented people and the infrastructure will come behind it—including new systems, procedures and tools, better IT systems and building more efficient accounting systems.

MHN: Can you discuss your role?

Dunn: I will focus on four areas for the apartment market: refining Bell’s investment strategy, broadening their access to institutional capital; to refine their investment and portfolio management infrastructure and expand the company’s acquisition platform. I will be focusing on the apartment sector.

MHN: How is your past experience relevant to this role?

Dunn: In my 20 years at AvalonBay, I oversaw their transaction activity, which consisted of buying and selling 60,000 apartment homes—about $7 billion in assets. I helped raise and oversaw AvalonBay’s two investment funds and created the company’s redevelopment and market research platforms. I also helped to create and direct their investment strategy. Besides that, I also have experience in all the above mentioned areas. The role at AvalonBay was sort of similar but this is a greater leadership opportunity for me.

MHN: What has the company got planned over next 12 months?

Dunn: I am in the process of planning that. I am spending time with all the senior associates to understand what has made Bell successful and where they think there are opportunities for growth. I am also spending time in the market, to understand where the opportunities are. I’ll also talk to external folks—investment bankers, market research companies, combining all three areas to formulate their investment strategy over the next few months. After that, I will work on getting access to capital.

MHN: What are the biggest challenges?

Dunn: In general, even though the markets have strengthened, it’s still difficult to raise capital regardless of what company you’re with. I’d like to think that given Bells track record, their relationships and their team, it will be easy for the company than most others. However, it’s still difficult, so that is the biggest challenge for me as well for the market as a whole.

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