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From Summit Hall to Austin, Texas: Building a student housing empire

Written by Blair Dowler | Photographed by Alex Wilson

“If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.” That is Bill Bayless’s life motto, and it consistently rings true in his life. Having grown up in the industrial town of Wellsburg, West Virginia, Bayless graduated with a degree in marketing from the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, and in 1993 co-founded what is today the nation’s largest developer, owner and manager of high-quality student housing — American Campus Communities (ACC). 

“It’s about perseverance and never giving up — you can always determine your own fate. Your success is in nobody’s hands but your own, and you have to believe in yourself,” Bayless said. “You can briefly wallow in your sorrow when you fail. But if you move forward, you will succeed.”

Today, Austin, Texas-based American Campus Communities is an $8.7 billion enterprise with nearly 200 properties nationwide. With Bayless’s grassroots expertise, the company operates with a mission of providing students with the best possible college experience and an unrelenting commitment to students, parents and educational institutions. But, let’s take it back a few years to where this venture all began. 

Bill Bayless breaks ground for U-Club at WVU.
In 2015, WVU President E. Gordon Gee and Bayless broke ground for U Club Sunnyside, American Campus Community's 100th property.

The foundation for Bayless’s success started with his childhood growing up in Brooke County and playing football at Brooke High School. Born to Buck and Lucille Bayless, the student housing mogul was the son and grandson of steelworkers and, after graduating high school in steel country, he had a decision to make. Was he going to work in the mills or was he going to go to college? 

So, while WVU was the answer to that question, Bayless ultimately attributes his success to his parents and the place he calls home – the Mountain State. 

“It has been a huge influence in my career and the success that I’ve personally been blessed with. I worked in the paper factory all through college in the summers. I will tell you in the early part of my career, my success was driven by just simply outworking people. It was inherent in the culture of West Virginia,” he said. “The basic grounding and solid fundamental values and hard work, I think gives all of us a leg up when we compete with the rest of the world.” 

He had the determination, so his next step was to get a great education. In his first couple of years at WVU, Bayless juggled different majors, starting with criminology, then onto computer science and a pit stop in accounting. Then he found his true calling as a marketing major at B&E. 

“I remember some of my earlier marketing courses, one in particular with Dr. Conner, and I was sitting there getting an overview of marketing and going over the Four Ps – product, price, place, promotion. It just all clicked for me,” he said. “And literally sitting in that first marketing class, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do!’ That was probably well into my sophomore year. It was a total revelation that marketing was how I wanted to go forward.”

It didn’t take long before Bayless was putting those marketing principles into practice as a resident assistant at Summit Hall in 1984. President E. Gordon Gee was in his first term as president of WVU. ≠He had raised academic entrance requirements, trying to improve standards, and there had been a drop in enrollment. 

“I remember sitting at RA orientation with my fellow resident assistants, and I started talking about product, price, place, promotion and how we can raise the occupancy of this building,” he said. “So, my education, coupled with experience at Summit Hall and the lack of quality off-campus products in Morgantown, was actually where the vision of what would become American Campus came. Improving the quality of life for students became a mission and a career.” 

The young entrepreneur spent three years as a resident and resident assistant at Summit Hall. He then went on to manage the residence hall for a brief time period. Summit Hall is the place he brought his two children home from the hospital to, so to say he is deeply rooted in the Sunnyside area of Morgantown is an understatement. 

From there, his itch to really break into the student housing industry was consistently growing. He started working with traditional real estate companies in Columbus and Houston to establish student housing divisions, but Bayless quickly realized that these companies were not willing to commit the capital and resources to make the venture soar. 

“In the 1980s, off-campus student housing nationally was low-quality, low-density, absentee landlords. If you were to take a college-level real estate class at the time, there was a textbook, Apartment Management 101 written by Edward Kelly, who was one of the chief real estate authors in America,” Bayless said. “The only mention of student housing in the textbook was in a chapter called ‘Types of Tenants.’ There was a paragraph that said, ‘Give me vacancies before you give me students. They’ll tear up your property. They won’t pay their rent. They have no sense of loyalty. And instead of housing students, you would rather have an empty apartment.’”

Those misperceptions and obstacles weren’t going to stop Bayless from achieving what he knew one day would be American Campus Communities. So, with $3,000 in his bank account, he moved his wife and children to Austin, Texas. The brand new company, which today has more than 3,500 employees, began with four employees and one, third-party student housing management contract for Dobie Center in Austin. The company is now known globally among institutional investors. 

Bayless at the New York Stock Exchange
Bayless and American Campus Community partners on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange after launching a successful IPO.

“If you go to our website and look at our founding mission, you’ll notice that it says nothing about being the biggest or the size that we are trying to attain. It only talks about being the best and the premier provider to students, parents and universities,” he said. “I always tell people the reason that we have become the biggest is because we were, and still are, solely focused on being the best, which enabled us to grow. So, by not having a quantitative goal, but rather a qualitative, service-oriented goal, it has enabled becoming the largest.”

Bayless did not just co-found a student housing company; he and the American Campus team revolutionized the real estate industry by creating the institutional student housing market. It was uncharted territory, but they built it up enough to even launch a successful IPO. 

“Usually, you’re taking a company public in sectors that are very well established and the market has familiarity, but we were taking a company public in an industry that not only didn’t exist, but one in which there were negative misconceptions. I think that’s American Campus’ greatest accomplishment,” he said. “That IPO was the linchpin. When people talk about how Morgantown’s student housing has changed, I will say that the American Campus IPO was what made all of that possible. It opened that door for all of those other companies to have access to affordable capital to grow their companies and their visions.”

Imagine beautifully structured apartment buildings with pools, open courtyards with fire pits, cornhole stations and academic success centers. Inside, you find spacious floor plans with modern furniture. Each bedroom is designed to be a sanctuary to relax, but also includes a designated area to study. Bayless emphasized a commitment to the product with American Campus Communities — a home away from home for students. 

Bayless said the environment in which students live can be either conducive or detrimental to academic success, so it is important to American Campus that each characteristic of every community is strategically developed and implemented to foster the ability to learn and grow in all aspects of life.

“One thing that comes into play — it was certainly what Summit Hall was for me — is the education outside of the classroom and our exposure to other students from different countries, different beliefs, different cultures and different experiences,” he said. “I got a text recently from a dear friend I went to school with that I hadn’t heard from in years, congratulating me on a recent award I had received. His name is Babak Noorbakhsh. He was an Iranian student that was an RA at Summit Hall. The experience to make lifelong, lasting relationships – that all takes place where we live.” 

So, today when you’re driving in the Sunnyside area of Morgantown or near dozens of college campuses nationwide, you can see firsthand the enterprise Bayless and his team at American Campus Communities has built. Not only is that Sunnyside property, which is known as U Club Sunnyside, special to Bayless because of his roots, but also because it was the 100th development project for American Campus. 

“To see it right as we finished the construction on U Club, as I was coming up the street from campus and saw the prominent place it has right there on University Avenue, it was overwhelming to have played a positive role in the gentrification of Sunnyside,” he said. “And even though it is a private, off-campus facility, President Gee and the University made a big deal of it and came over and took part in the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting, which really made it more special.” 

Like he said, WVU makes it a priority to recognize their successful alumni. Bayless has made it back to campus several times, including once as a speaker for the B&E Distinguished Speaker Series, to be inducted into the B&E Roll of Distinguished alumni and, most recently, to be inducted into the WVU Academy of Distinguished Alumni. 

Bayless speaks as part of B&E Distinguished Speaker Series
Bayless speaks to students at WVU as part of the 2015 B&E Distinguished Speaker Series.

“The company and I have been blessed with numerous national recognitions. To me, none of those mean quite as much as being honored by WVU,” he said. “Coming back and getting to speak to the College of Business and Economics at the address at the Mountainlair a couple years ago, that was truly one of the highlights of my career.”

But Bayless is not recognized only for his accomplishments as a businessman; he is also a philanthropist. American Campus Communities is very proud of its efforts through the American Campus Charities Foundation, which has raised more than $1.5 million for organizations like the Rise School of Austin, Life Works, the Boys and Girls Club of Austin and scouting. 

“It is all focused on youth and education. It’s not just the company writing the check. It’s our executives joining those boards, and then it’s the entire ACC team here at the home office working in all of these charities and dedicating hundreds of hours to them,” he said. “It is really impactful and meaningful, and we are as proud of our charitable impacts as much as any operational or financial statistic.” 

In Bayless’s spare time, he enjoys golfing, reading and, most of all, spending time with his wife, Jamie, their two children and three grandchildren — whom he says are all his greatest personal accomplishments. 

“You can measure a person’s success by looking at the character and the success of their children. And so, everything I am today is the success of Buck and Lucile Bayless. We’ll see what Ryan and Lauren Bayless, who are in their late 20s and early 30s, produce in their lives, and that will ultimately be the judge of my personal success on this earth,” he said.