Miriam marcano-bender and her husband were having dinner with a group of people. The couple next to them had just sold their house and bought into a cooperative. "That's just what we did a few years ago," said Marcano-Bender.
"Really?" observed the male half of the pair, who then added: "I never knew living in a co-op could be so exhausting." It turns out the man had been elected to the board and had eventually become board president. "There's just so much to do," he sighed. "I didn't realize that our co-op was in such bad shape."
It was then that Marcano-Bender, a longtime veteran board president herself — and winner of a 2001 Habitat Management Achievement Award, as well — gave him a piece of advice. "Be sure you have a good team of professionals in place," she said, "and be sure that you listen to them." She continued: "The board has the power to make changes. But the board has to work as a team with its professionals. A lot of boards get good advice and don't take it."
In seeking advice from board veterans, Habitat went to previous winners of its Management Achievement Awards program.
Charles Anderson. Former board president of the 222-unit Carlton Regency, a Manhattan cooperative. The two-building cooperative desperately needed a series of improvements: a new cooling tower and absorption unit for one building and new, through-the-wall air conditioning units for the other; new windows and waterproofing for all the enclosed balconies; and the restoration of the entrance plaza. Architect Anderson quickly became the point man for accomplishing the tasks at hand and eventually became president of the co-op. He moved out last year.
Myra Cohen. Board president, 81 Irving Place, Manhattan. On her board since 1994 and board president since 1997, Cohen presided over a number of notable achievements at her 101-unit cooperative. Among them: hiring of a new super; reduction of shareholder arrears; release of a house rules handbook for residents; initiation of sidewalk repairs; initiation of lobby refurbishment; and a revision of the corporate resale policy.
Marc Haken. Board president at the three-building Hilltop Village Cooperative No. 4 in Queens. He joined the board in 1978 and became president within a year, serving in that role ever since, leading the property through bad times to good ones.
Miriam Marcano-Bender. Board president at 65-unit Wincrest Tenants Corp. in Yonkers, N.Y. Seven years ago, she raised questions at the annual shareholders meeting and was soon on the board as treasurer. She turned around a dire financial situation and has served continuously, primarily as president.
Cheryl Russo. Board president of the 24-unit condominium at 129-135 Franklin Street in Jersey City, N.J. In August 1998, she joined the board as president. It was a time of crisis: the condo had an unpaid $70,000 water bill and little money to pay it. She led the property to a successful resolution of the issue. She no longer lives there, but still serves as president, and has parlayed her experiences into a new career as a managing agent.
Ana Samin. Former board president of Westchester Towers in Yonkers, N.Y. Built in the early 1960s and converted in 1983, her property was suffering from age and neglect: elevators, windows, and roof all needed repairs. But it was the worrisome financial state of her 420-unit, two-building cooperative that led her to the board in 1994. She helped turn it around and served for five years, most of those as president. She moved out last year.
Leo van Amerongen. Former board vice president, 319 Barrow Street, Jersey City, N.J. The 28-unit condominium had hit hard times: renters were in the majority, common charge arrears were out of control, and leaks and mechanical breakdowns occurred regularly. Through initiative and dedication, Van Amerongen and board president Beat Reinhart turned the deteriorating property into a prosperous community. Van Amerongen, who had owned two apartments, sold his last unit in 2001 and now lives nearby.
David Welz. Board president, 99-41 63rd Drive, Forest Hills, N.Y. The Connecticut (99-31 63rd Drive) and the Vermont (99-41 63rd Drive) are two separate co-op associations (100 units each) with separate budgets, bylaws, and boards. But they share a courtyard, five-man staff, and managing agent. Welz, on the board for 17 years, has worked with his opposite number, board president Herman Jaffe, to upgrade the common courtyard and keep the two co-ops running smoothly.
Getting and taking good advice is part of being a board member. Yet there is rarely a transition period for new board members, who are often thrust into their roles while they still have their training wheels on. With annual elections just passed, this is a good time for new board members to get the benefits of insights from those who have been there before. For, as Sherlock Holmes once put it, "Everything comes in circles. The old wheel turns and the same spoke comes up. It has all been done before and will be again." Or, to put it another way: experience of the past breeds lessons for the future.
Each of the participants was asked a series of questions. Their answers appear below.
What were your first steps when you got on the board?
Anderson: As a new board member, you start by listening and paying attention to what's going on. You see what projects hit the agenda, see what you find interesting. I got involved because I'm an architect and they had some renovation projects coming up.
You know, everyone has hopes and dreams for the building. You look at what personally interests you and then see if that fits in with what's good for the whole place. Whatever you want to do, you have to have consensus. If you're interested in new windows and the majority wants new windows, you get new windows. If you're aggravated because there are no newsletters and no communication from the board, you get on the board to do that.
When you are serving on the board, you have to look at what your strengths are. You have your issues, but you also want to solve common complaints. The group provides checks. You would never find someone [succeeding if he gets on the board] solely to get a parking space. The rest of the board acts as a check for such a single-issue agenda. Hopefully.
Haken: I knew nothing from nothing and no one gave me any help. I felt I really had to understand what was going on. So, I listened a whole bunch. After two or three meetings, I began participating. What I didn't know, I read about.
This was a Section 213 co-op, built in 1953, and it was run by these tough guys, 60 to 70 years old, and they'd been hating each other since the place was built and I stepped into that. The president before me was dumped. And they said, 'Would you be president?' And, having no idea what it would entail, I said, 'Sure.' So here I was, teaching during the day and I was president at night, not knowing what being president means. I didn't know anything about the mechanics of the building, and ordering, and boilers, and any of that stuff. But I learned. I got books, and if I needed boiler work done, I read about boilers; if roofs, I read about roofing — what kinds of roofing and materials. I have a genius cousin and I would be on the phone with him and say, "Jack tell me about this, tell me about that."
Russo: I came on in an emergency set of circumstances, without formally being voted in. I was acting president [from my first day because] we had a president who was inactive. Two weeks after that, I became president. There was so much to do. We had a $70,000 overdue water bill, the company was threatening to shut off water to the building; our manager was incompetent. We had to start interviewing management companies. We organized a general meeting to let the association know what was going on.
Welz: The first couple of years, I listened a lot and tried to learn.
What was your greatest misconception?
Anderson: The greatest misconception is that you can't make a difference. Looking back, I was surprised at how much you can do and what a difference you can make.
Cohen: I was pretty aware of the kind of problems a board faces before I came on because I run my own business. The board is a business. It's a business not a fiefdom. People come on and think it's a fiefdom. It's not.
Haken: The biggest misconception that new board members have is that the board is the landlord and that the tenants are like renters. Getting rid of that landlord/renter mentality is the biggest problem [for everyone]. My idea was that we are all owners, that I had purchased a piece of the rock. There is a difference between the co-op and the tenant mentality. The tenant does not pay for electricity, so they don't turn off the lights. The co-op mentality is they'll turn off the lights or else the maintenance goes up for everyone.
Marcano-Bender: When I started, it took me a month to realize what was going on. Being on the board takes a hell of a lot more work than you can imagine; a lot of time, a lot of footwork. My biggest misconception is that I've always felt people going on the board will be as dedicated as I am. I get disappointed by that time and again. Thank God, I have a great vice president/secretary, otherwise, I wouldn't do it. I'm so tired.
Russo: I had no conception of what it was like to be a board member. The building was out of control. No one was doing anything about it. It was overwhelming at the beginning.
Samin: The misconception I had was that I thought people had basic experience. When I got on the board, I immediately started looking at the [account book] numbers. [The board had asked me to serve on the board] because of my experience [as a CPA]. I looked at the numbers, the personalities, the agenda items. What was their experience? I was immediately disappointed. We had people running this business who had never run a business before. They didn't have a clue. I thought people would have business experience. It's a business, with million-dollar budgets. There are all sorts of big-ticket items to understand, things that you were liable for. I mean, we would come into the bidding process and get three bids, and they'd want to go for the lowest bid.
I thought people would have analytical skills. The big business picture experience was totally missing. The front canopy is coming apart and there's no money in the reserves and they're more interested in whether Jane Doe got parking space A or B. There is a total lack of priority. I immediately took it on and tried to persuade them to [change their approach]. Within three to six months, they realized that the previous president needed to step aside.
What is the one thing a new board member should avoid?
Cohen: At a meeting, you should avoid getting into a squabble that gets you off track. You have to be above petty little squabbles. You have to step back and look at the whole picture. What's best for the building? Avoid getting into personalities; you have to be objective about what you think is best, but you have to listen to other people's opinions. It may not be what you thought of. You can't do things for your own personal end. You have to be like Caesar's wife: above reproach.
Marcano-Bender: A board member should try to avoid getting personal stuff done — getting a parking spot or storage space for themselves. You have to avoid a personal agenda. You can't get emotionally involved with people and decisions. The owners don't have to like you; they need to fear and respect you. That's how you get things done. People fear you so they follow the rules. I don't worry about being everyone's friend.
Russo: One thing you have to get used to is that not everybody is going to be happy. It's not your job to make everyone in the association happy. Decisions are made, some people will be unhappy. But you can't run around in circles because [you're trying to satisfy] one person. These associations are run democratically; whatever the majority decides. You can't please everyone. If you haven't pleased everyone that does not necessarily mean you've failed in your responsibilities. You have to get used to people being angry at you.
Samin: Board members should not just [blindly] follow the path [of least resistance]. Because they don't understand an issue, they sometimes just vote the way Jane voted because they trust Jane, or they think Jane is smart. If you don't know what you are being asked to do, learn to ask. I didn't know anything about elevators, so I went out and learned about them. I went up with the mechanic, I studied and learned about elevators, I interviewed other co-op boards, so I could make an intelligent decision. You don't have to know everything, but you should take it on yourself to learn and ask. You can't be a board member unless you do your homework.
Van Amerongen: Above all, don't make unilateral, uninformed decisions. You will be questioned and you will be criticized. Before making a decision, you should try to make it a point to understand the functions of the building. What type of heating system do you have? What type of security system? Sprinkler system? Elevator? Try to understand them and find out what kind of service you're getting.
What would you do differently, knowing what you know now?
Anderson: When people work on the board more and more, you can trust your gut instincts more. If you get a strange vibe from a potential contractor or buyer of an apartment, your gut is telling you something. As a group, you develop a group gut and that's valid. A new board member doesn't have that, however, so he has to get his bearing and figure out what's real and what's not.
Marcano-Bender: I changed one policy recently [based on past experiences]. People would be coming up to us [board members] in the hallway and make complaints and suggestions. So I started a policy that no one is allowed to ask us questions when we are just being 'residents' in the building. It's not fair; they can only ask questions by calling and making appointments with management. When you keep getting people approaching board members in the hallway, that's wearing. And it's rude. It's why people don't want to serve on the board.
Russo: You have to manage your management company. You can't just expect them to manage everything. They're typically juggling a lot of buildings; when I became president, I tried to prioritize issues and present them [in order of importance] to my manager. Now that I'm a manager, I see that boards rarely do that; they inundate you with things. As a board member, it is your responsibility to determine what are the most important things. You can try and let the manager do it themselves but it is not the most efficient way.
Van Amerongen: I would try to delegate more issues to committees, and ramrod them through committees. If you do too much on your own, people become suspicious about where the money goes. With a committee, you pass around the responsibility. And sometimes, you get good ideas.
What was the hardest thing you ever had to do?
Anderson: The hardest thing is dealing with unreasonable demands made by shareholders. They get a leak in the corner of the living room and they want the entire floor replaced, at the building's expense. It's a gray area. You have to fight with them. The whole process is most painful. You don't want to have neighbors upset but if you conceded on that point, maintenance costs would go through the roof. And it wouldn't be fair to others who didn't complain.
Haken: The hardest thing I ever have to do is go to court with shareholders. If they fail to pay the maintenance — some people lost their jobs and they're five or six months in arrears — and they haven't spoken to me, that is foolish. I don't want to turn them out. If they have a problem paying maintenance, we'll work out a schedule. But they have to come to me first; I won't approach them.
Marcano-Bender: The hardest thing was to evict someone. They were creating havoc and chaos in the building, and they were intimidating all the people in the building and they had to go, so we had to put them in default. It's difficult, but as a board member you have to work for the good of the whole.
Russo: I had to fire a property manager. You work closely with the manager, so it's difficult to fire them. It was difficult because I knew the building had been in transition from another manager just within the past year; you don't want to keep putting the building into unstable circumstances, but sometimes you have to.
Samin: The hardest choice was firing the management company. You have to be careful of your managing agent: you don't know what his agenda is; the manager has a secondary agenda [besides working for you]: he may want to employ certain people, or not take on a window project, or may not want to put his resources into a project.
Welz: The hardest thing? To get married! But if you mean with the co-op, the hardest is whether we should spend a large sum of money on a capital project or defer it for another year. Juggling money is the hardest thing you can do, When we had to get a new boiler four or five years ago, we had to make that choice. We decided not to defer it. We decided we had to do it.
What was the worst mistake you made?
Russo: One lesson I did learn was related to a property manager we had to fire. Sometimes you can fight too hard for something; you have to remember that it's a democratic system. You do not want to get too attached to a particular direction you want things to go in. Remember to let other people participate in the decision. Everyone is responsible, so don't force the situation. If you push too hard for something, then you're really responsible. If it doesn't work out, you're on the hook. I really pushed for this particular property management company. I pushed really hard. And when it didn't work out, everyone saw it as my fault. That was a burden I didn't have to bear.
Welz: That's a tough one. Things never really got to the point where you make a terrible mistake because everyone else is there to help straighten things out. So it never gets to the point where things are really bad.
What was the most valuable contribution you made?
Anderson: Overseeing the construction program, and the other one was working on staffing issues that had lingered for years. I was willing to work with the necessary paperwork. Everybody loves to complain about building service employees but, if they're not willing to write them up, nothing can get done. I coordinated such efforts with the union.
Marcano-Bender: Vision and time. To be able to visualize concepts and ideas and to be able to give a lot of time to them.
Welz: Putting as much time and effort into the co-op as I could possibly spare.
When do you know it's time to step down?
Haken: Eventually, I'm going to die and that's when I'll go. But, seriously, that's a real good question. I guess there are capable people out there. But I don't know if they're willing to take over the mantle of being president because no one wants to spend as much time as I do.
Marcano-Bender: You should step down when you're not being effective anymore, when you're missing meetings, and not paying attention. If your heart is not in it, and you're not contributing, and not completing the assignment, what are you there for? You might as well have someone else take your place.
Samin: I stepped down from the board when I sold my apartment and bought a house. I felt it was time to leave the board when it personally started affecting my day-to-day life living there. People were not saying kind things to my family. Someone came up to me and my daughter, and, because they didn't like the way I redid the lobby, said, "You should move." When they criticize me, I can deal with that. But when it starts affecting my family, it's time to go. There is a great amount of time required and you have to spend 20 hours a week running it. That takes a lot of personal time; you are forced to neglect your family. That's not good. And when they personally attack you — I served five years. You have to develop a thick skin.
What is the best piece of advice you can offer a new board member?
Anderson: Be willing to put in the time required to do your job. The biggest mistake you can make is to think you can spend half-an-hour daydreaming in a meeting and think you're doing the job. You need to do research during the middle of the week, do follow-through interviews, and do your homework, as you would for a normal job.
Haken: Listen twice as much and talk less. That's why you have two ears and one mouth. Listen and learn before you open your mouth. Don't talk just to hear yourself speak. Don't join a board because you want [perks]. Think of the whole development — macro and micro. Don't spend 15 minutes of the board meeting talking about the fact that your window is leaking. Have a sense of proportion. You need to have a sense of why one is there. With all of the frustrations, I enjoy having input into the outcomes. I still get a feeling of accomplishment and pride when people look at our building and say, "It's beautiful."
Russo: Don't take it personally. What happens a lot is you get personally wrapped up in the various issues. It's hard but you have to remain detached. I try, but it doesn't come naturally. You can't think that because you're a volunteer, people owe you. That's not the right attitude.
Van Amerongen: You have to try and listen to the tenants and not just at board meetings. Frankly, people don't come to board meetings. You have to make yourself listen to problems. You have to be a little bit of a socialite; you talk to people and if they want to help out, you get them involved.
Welz: Listen and learn. And don't listen to just anyone; listen to someone knowledgeable about co-op management. Remember: you have to walk before you can run.
As a board member, finally, how do you make a difference?
Haken: My rule is to be proactive. Don't wait for something to break before mending it. In the long run, you save money if you do preventive maintenance and you are proactive. I learned that lesson many years ago when pipes would break. I said to my manager, "The next pipe that breaks, we're not going to simply patch it. We'll replace the entire line." And that's what we did. It's called spending money wisely.
Russo: How does one make a difference? By listening, by being flexible, by being involved, by taking an interest in what's going on, by taking a look at the best direction, by engaging other people, by communicating effectively. If you get other people involved, there is a sense of leadership, of rules, and of the building being watched and taken care of. Let the owners know you're there, by communicating, by responding to complaints, by having meetings.
Samin: One piece of advice: look at everything for yourself. Don't let other board members taint your first impression. If they say, "The managing agent is a jerk," you get tainted before you form your own judgment. Don't. Make your own assessment of the situation. If you go and learn about it yourself, you'll end up making a better decision, as opposed to being clouded by others. They may want to get you up to speed, but they color your opinion. In the end, you should research, and think for yourself, and give yourself information to form your own opinion.
Welz: You have to be totally honest to the [other members of] the board and to the other shareholders and I underline totally. You must be truthful. The truth is very easy to remember, even though it can be painful. If you're broke this year, tell them. That's the most important thing you can do.