Steven D. Bell (BA ’67) has spent his life investing in people and real estate.
Now he’s making his greatest investment ever in both: Bell has pledged $11 million to support a new building for UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
His goal is simple: to make North Carolina better.
Bell, chairman of Bell Partners, wants more students to have access to a transformational education at UNC Kenan-Flagler. With demand far exceeding the ability of the Business School to accept extremely talented students into the Undergraduate Business Program because of space constraints, he wants to remove those physical barriers to serve more business majors and enhance the learning environment for all business students.
“I strongly believe in the need for the expansion and that it will enormously benefit our entire state for decades to come – and ultimately create dramatic change,” he says. “The Business School develops students’ skills and qualities that make them more effective citizens of and contributors to North Carolina,” says Bell.
“This gift from Steve and Jackie Bell is an investment in our students, in our communities and in the economic growth of North Carolina,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “Their leadership, vision and generous support enables UNC Kenan-Flagler to continue fulfilling its critical mission to provide an outstanding business education to our undergraduate and graduate students.”
Bell grew up in Raleigh, where his father was the first oral surgeon in eastern North Carolina. He decided on a career in real estate investment while he was a student at UNC, where he majored in history. “Some of my interest in property management grew out of my experience as being house manager for Phi Delta Theta Fraternity for two consecutive years,” he says.
He worked in mortgage banking and commercial real estate brokerages before he founded his firm – now called Bell Partners – in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1976. He began with eight properties and 21 employees.
Today he is chairman of one of the leading apartment investment and management companies in the U.S. The firm owns or manages over 60,000 apartments throughout the country; has over 1,500 associates and nine offices; and has completed over $16 billion in apartment transactions since 2002.
Both his family and his business have deep Carolina connections. As a student, Bell began building relationships that would last a lifetime, and over the five decades since he graduated, he has continued to nurture friendships and business relationships that he treasures.
“UNC has been an important part of our lives,” says Bell. He and his wife, Jackie Bell, have three children: Donna Bell Medlin; Jon Bell (MBA ’99), CEO of Bell Partners; and E. Durant Bell (BA ’02), executive VP of high-net-worth relations and business development at Bell Partners.
Two of their children and all three of their spouses have degrees from Carolina. “We have family friends, employees and business associates who are UNC graduates,” he says. “Many of the early investments we made at Bell Partners were in small North Carolina towns from Murphy to New Bern, and often the seller or investors were Carolina alumni. We share the common bond of Carolina.”
When Bell received the Business School’s highest honor – the UNC Kenan-Flagler Leadership Award – in 2013 – friends and family contributed insights about him. Hard working, loyal, caring and generous are just some of the qualities they shared about the dedicated family man. He is also the master of the personal touch, taking peaches and other fresh produce when visiting his properties and personally delivering distribution checks to investors.
He has shared both his expertise and his success with UNC Kenan-Flagler for many years, serving on the Board of Advisors and actively engaging with the School’s work.
UNC didn’t offer real estate classes when Bell was a student, and he is proud of the innovative curriculum offered today. He has invested in several funds managed by students at UNC Kenan-Flagler. “Carolina uses unique approaches to prepare students for the real world after graduation, and I am unaware of any other school that raises real money from UNC friends for real estate students to invest in assets all over the U.S.”
He helped create the Steven D. Bell and Leonard W. Wood Distinguished Professorship in Real Estate held by Dave Hartzell (PhD ’85), and he has supported the Leonard W. Wood Center for Real Estate Studies and the Family Enterprise Center. He supported the expansion of the Rizzo Center, where UNC Kenan-Flagler prepares business people and organizations around the world to meet the challenges ahead. It now features the Steven D. Bell Hall, named in his honor.
“Steve Bell’s dedication to both UNC and the state is legendary,” says Doug Shackelford (BSBA ’80), dean and Meade H. Willis Distinguished Professor of Taxation. “Steve thinks of business people as entrepreneurs – prepared to take risks and to act on their convictions. He has done just that – always caring about the wider community, serving others and sharing his successes.”
Bell’s generous support has been strategic, forward looking and transformative, and his new gift in support of the new building creates an enduring legacy, says Shackelford. “It is fitting that it both shares and advances the vision of the UNC leaders who founded the Business School in 1919 to better serve the state’s business needs by preparing graduates to be extraordinary leaders who contribute to the organizations and communities where they work and live.”
A core value at Bell Partners is to “prepare for the future today.”
Bell’s new gift commitment is the largest outright gift from an individual ever made to UNC Kenan-Flagler. He views it as an investment in the success of North Carolina business and society that will yield benefits for generations to come.
“There is never enough money to address all of the needs in our state and this is even more true in the current economic downturn, but now is an opportune time to plan for our future,” he says. “About 50% of the students who apply to the Undergraduate Business Program cannot get in, despite high grades and impressive accomplishments,” says Bell. “A building expansion is needed now, not 15 to 20 years down the road. It will allow many more UNC students the opportunity to attend the Undergraduate Business and MBA programs.”
Bell has always been a long-range planner and recognizes the numerous benefits of an expanded program for North Carolina’s growing population. Seventy percent of the Undergraduate Business Program graduates ultimately end up in North Carolina, where they build successful careers and start companies that have created thousands of jobs and millions in revenues in North Carolina.
“We need strong business skills in our society. Successful business people contribute to their communities, charities, education and organizations that serve North Carolina citizens. A business degree from UNC Kenan-Flagler helps to foster this perspective while creating opportunities and the joy of sharing with others.”
“This is my most meaningful gift to our great state,” says Bell. “I love our Tar Heel state and I am proud to help Carolina with a gift that will make North Carolina better, make the economy better, and make how we live better.”