Celebrating 40 years at P.B. Bell: A Special Q & A with Debbie Willis

By Arian Ploszaj

January 17, 2023 marks a significant milestone for one of P.B. Bell’s executives.  Debbie Willis, President and Designated Broker of Property Services, celebrates her 40th anniversary with the company.

After multiple failed attempts to gain her approval to throw a party in her honor, we finally settled and received Debbie’s blessing to celebrate and recognize her great achievement through this article.  We ordered in lunch, and sat down for a Q & A.

How did you get started in the multifamily industry?

I moved to Arizona in the early 1980s looking for career opportunities, which were limited in my hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota.  I used a placement agency to land a temporary accounts payable position at P.B. Bell, and immediately fell in love with multifamily and the company.

What kept you at P.B. Bell for 40 years?

The people and the culture.  Working for Phil and Chapin Bell has truly been a blessing.  They both allowed me to run the company as it were my own and have trusted and believed in me and my decisions.  Their kindness and belief in taking care of their employees always set the standard for our culture, and for that, I will forever be grateful.

What are some of your favorite memories?

One of the most touching memories took place at an all-employee event to celebrate Phil Bell’s retirement and Chapin taking over the helm.  During Phil’s speech, and just prior to him speaking about Chapin and officially turning over the reins of the company, he said he wanted to specifically thank two people, his wife and me.  I was shocked and honored.  He thanked me for 36 years at P.B. Bell and for being the heart and soul of P.B. Bell’s asset management.  Phil said he found me to be decisive, compassionate, an independent soul, and always having the company’s best interest at heart.  The second was after Chapin took over the company, he told me he couldn’t do it without me.  Their appreciation and recognition mean the absolute world to me.

Another memory, or more of a funny story, happened not too long ago.  I was introduced to an industry colleague that I had not met before.  When introduced, this person did a bow to me and said something along the lines of, “Oh, I know who you are!  You’re an O.G.!”  I smiled and laughed but had no idea what that meant.  I googled it right away and found out I’m an “original gangsta.”  I laughed and loved it.

What advise would you give someone looking to grow into a leadership role?

First and foremost, find a company that matches your beliefs.  Second, be decisive.  I have always made decisions based on what is the overall best decision for the company and not any single individual.  That approach has served me well in leading people and managing the company.  Third, allow yourself to be vulnerable, but still show confidence.  Understand who you are and who you are not and what you can and cannot contribute.  Fourth, always learn from others along the way.  Ask questions and listen.  There is a saying I love, “Sometimes real brilliance is knowing when to listen to the advice of others.”  Fifth, always consider what options are available and consider consequences on a big picture level.  Manage your expectations and be realistic about your authority.  And finally, as we’ve all been taught, surround yourself with people smarter and more talented than yourself.  That’s the easy part.  The next step is recognizing their value in multiple ways such as compensation, recognition, promotion, celebration and saying thank you.  Great job and thank you can never be heard enough.  My current and past coworkers and onsite teams have played a big part in the person I am today.

Any tips you can share for multifamily success in the Arizona market?

Get involved with the AMA (Arizona Multihousing Association).  I’m proud to have been associated with them for my entire 40 years at P.B. Bell, including serving on their board of directors.  The AMA is a fantastic resource for multifamily owners, operators, and industry professionals.  They offer training, wonderful networking and most importantly they provide a strong, unified voice in support of the multifamily community at the State Capital and in City Halls across Arizona.

What’s next?  Any thoughts regarding retirement?

I recently started riding horses, and I absolutely love it.  I’ve always loved animals and look forward to spending more time loving and caring for them.  As for retirement, it’s coming in the next couple of years.  I think it’s time.