The house that Bell built

Peter and Betty Bell believe developing commercial real estate is a noble profession and Jesuit education changes lives.

By Christopher Stolarski

Peter Bell builds things. The 1971 engineering alumnus has built buildings and whole communities. As a passionate supporter of real estate education, he also built something impressive at Marquette — a commercial Real Estate Program in the College of Business Administration for men and women who want to be the difference. Marquette’s program is ranked in the top 10 nationally and boasts a 100-percent job placement rate for graduates.

None of this would be true were it not for Peter and Betty Bell.

Peter’s passion for Jesuit education was passed down by his father, the late Robert B. Bell, Sr. “My dad wanted to go to St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago but his family didn’t have the money,” Peter recalls. “So he made the commitment to send all of his children to Catholic schools. In particular, he wanted to send the boys to a Jesuit high school. At that time Loyola Academy was downtown (Chicago), and we only had one car, so they shipped us all to Campion High School.”

At Campion, a now-closed Jesuit boarding school in Prairie du Chien, Wis., that Peter jokingly refers to as a minimum-security prison, the 67-year-old developed a fondness for Jesuits and the education they gave him.

Armed with a national academic scholarship, Peter, like his five brothers and sisters, headed to Marquette where he met Betty Tompa, Jour ’73, his wife of 44 years and the charming half of this real estate duo. The two are cast perfectly as yin and yang, and lead, with three sons, the development of Pabst Farms, a planned, mixed-use community in Oconomowoc, Wis., about 30 miles west of Milwaukee.

Their success brought them full circle back to Marquette, and in June 2001 Peter and then-Dean of the College of Business Administration David Shrock inked a philanthropic gift agreement to establish the Robert B. Bell, Sr., Chair in Real Estate. The $3.75 million gift was the largest the college had ever received. It launched a new academic focus.

The real estate program and Center for Real Estate cast a model for other marquee business programs.

Rev. Robert A. Wild, S.J., was a relatively new president at the time. He remembers the gift as a pivotal moment in the early stages of the university’s $360 million Magis campaign. “We were pulling rabbits out of a hat,” Father Wild says with a laugh, “because we hadn’t been in campaign in about eight years. Dave Shrock had some good ideas. … One of them was to have a program in commercial real estate. Peter wanted to name a chair in honor of his father. So Shrock, as dean, pushed on that.”

Next Marquette had to find its inaugural Bell Chair holder. A July 2001 Milwaukee Business Journal article quotes Shrock: “We’re looking for someone who is academically trained in the area of real estate and can have a prominent role on campus.”

They found him.

Dr. Mark Eppli had a national reputation, credentials from his time on the faculty at George Washington University, and he had trained with the preeminent real estate scholar at the time, Dr. James Graaskamp at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Eppli — like Peter and Betty — liked to build things. “To be able to establish a program and then a center from scratch is a formidable task at any university,” Eppli says. “But this looked like a great university to do exactly that.”

Peter and Betty Bell

The Real Estate Program and the Center for Real Estate cast a model for other marquee business programs, particularly the Applied Investment Management Program, which gives a select group of finance majors the opportunity to manage domestic and international equity and fixed-income portfolios, and the Supply Chain Management Program/Center, which is ranked in the top 25 nationally by three separate ratings groups, including U.S. News & World Report. Eppli launched the Associates for Commercial Real Estate Program in 2005 to train minorities for career paths in the commercial real estate industry.

“One of the best things Peter did was bring great focus to what he wanted to see in a successful program, essentially defining our first strategic plan right in the endowment agreement,” Eppli says. “And it clearly laid out what we needed to do over the first five years.”
Eppli praises Betty’s leadership as chair of the Center for Real Estate’s advisory board, particularly during the Great Recession when the Real Estate Program’s enrollment dropped to near-devastating figures. “There’s no question Betty was the steady rudder through some of our rougher waters,” he says.

Eppli announced in January that he will be leaving Marquette in May to assume a faculty position at UW–Madison, which means the College of Business Administration is now recruiting the second holder of the Bell Chair in Real Estate.

Marquette’s Real Estate Program remains the only such undergraduate program at a Jesuit university. It has been ranked ninth nationally by U.S. News for two consecutive years, and no one can deny its sterling job-placement rate for graduates.

“I wanted to introduce kids to the real estate profession — not just on the academic side but also the responsible side,” Peter says. “When you see your own dad, who only has two years of high school but, through real estate, was able to educate seven children in Catholic grade school, high school and college, keep his faith and still be a good dad. … It can be done.”

No one knows it better than Deshea Agee, Bus Ad ’99, executive director of Milwaukee’s Historic King Drive Business Improvement District and one of the first graduates of the ACRE program: “Without Peter Bell, I’d still be selling radio ads,” Agee says.
ACRE has already graduated approximately 150 individuals, including some Milwaukee alderpersons and others who have become some of the area’s most successful developers.

Peter, who has taught in the ACRE program, hired Agee as an intern on the Pabst Farms development project. “I barely knew what a pro forma was,” Agee remembers, “and I had no idea where Oconomowoc was.” Under Peter’s mentorship, Agee learned the real estate ropes from landscaping to lending. Peter even agreed to pay for Agee’s sales and brokerage licenses  — if he passed the tests. (He did.) “It is such a blessing that Peter made that endowment,” Agee says.

To Peter and Betty it was the right thing to do. “I always said when I taught the students, it’s not wrong to be super successful in real estate — it’s what you do with that success,” Peter says.

Peter and Betty Bell are 2017 members of the Marquette University President’s Society.

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