New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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Super Stars

After seven years, the super at Adam Satler's Upper East Side cooperative is leaving. Satler, the vice president, recalls the man fondly: "He was knowledgeable and reliable. He got the job done." He was so good, in fact, that he is now moving on to another building. What is Satler's board doing about it? "Someone suggested that we put together a list of what we are looking for in a super. I thought it was a good idea."

By most accounts, it is an ideal time to be a superlative superintendent. As Satler's building discovered, there are price wars going on for good supers and properties that don't pay top dollar for their professionals face the possibility of losing them.

"Good supers are having money thrown at them," observes Ira Meister, principal of Matthew Adam Properties. "They are being paid a premium. A good super is worth his weight in gold." There are places, notes Meister, where the board is supplementing the salary with a larger apartment, a free parking space, even an allowance. Some are offering bonus packages that equal half their salary.

The super is widely considered the "captain of the ship" and how well he does often determines whether the property he supervises faces a rocky voyage or a smooth one. "With a bad captain, you will not get anywhere," says Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate (MGRE). "A good one will get you through the storms."

Greenbaum points to a property his firm took over in Jackson Heights. The building was in trouble, with an inefficient superintendent and a mismanaged staff. "The super was horrible," Greenbaum recalls. "He would disappear for stretches of time and the staff would do what they liked."

Enter Juan Estermara. A porter/assistant handyman at the co-op, he was dependable, eager to learn, and ambitious. He also did a great deal of the technical work that the super should have been doing.

"He said he could do the job. The board liked him and said, 'Let's take a chance,'" notes Greenbaum. "We bought out the old super's contract and gave Juan a probation period. We haven't regretted it." Within a year, the building had begun its turnaround: staff morale and discipline were both improved and a great number of long-neglected repairs had been executed.

Estermara's story is not unique. And with hardworking supers like Estermara in demand, boards would be well-advised to create a list of the qualities they want and need in a super. That will not only help in the job hunt if you are looking for a new superintendent, but it is also a good way to evaluate the performance of your current super and decide whether you are settling for too little.

THE EYES AND THE EARS

A superintendent has always been important to a building. He is, say many managers, "the eyes and ears" of both the managing agent and the board. But, over the years, his role has evolved. Originally, he was the man in overalls, with a wrench in his back pocket and an apartment on the ground floor. He was the guy who fixed things. Now, he (and sometimes she) may often as not be seen in a coat and tie, working at a computer terminal in the office adjacent to his apartment. He supervises staff, may attend part (or all) of a board meeting, and may even be given the title of "resident manager."

In this changing world, a super must be multitalented with the ability to multitask. "You are looking for someone with intelligence, technical ability, and people skills," says manager Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso. "This is a multifaceted job and you are looking for someone who is good at many things."

"Boards expect more and more from their superintendents," agrees Fred Rudd, president of Rudd Realty. "They expect him to know more and do more."

With that in mind, here are eight questions to consider when evaluating and/or hiring a superintendent:

What is the level and scope of his technical knowledge and ability? You must be certain that your superintendent has what it takes to handle the technical challenges that will confront your property on a daily basis. He must be certain that the elevators, boiler, and plumbing are and continue to be in working order. If there are problems with any part of the building systems, he is responsible for repairs (or for getting contractors to make them). What sort of preventive maintenance program does he have in place?

"The first step is to make sure that whoever you hire has the technical ability to be a good super," says Leslie Kaminoff, principal of AKAM Associates. AKAM, for instance, has its supers take a written exam and then, after they have passed that and are assigned to a building, the company reviews the preventive maintenance programs and other job requirements at the property with Doug Weinstein, AKAM's vice president of operations. "We want him to be sure he understands what his job is and that there is accountability," Kaminoff explains.

Supers, like any employee, may need supervision, and co-ops can give them a strict schedule. "We have a preventive maintenance program in place," says Kaminoff. "For instance, on the heating plant, we have a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual checklist of tasks that have to be undertaken. If the super says that he cleaned the boiler, we will check that. The list reminds him of what he has to do, and makes him accountable."

Is he willing to take continuing education courses and learn more about his craft? If knowledge is power, a good super is an ambitious one and eager to become more powerful through education. Is your superintendent willing to enroll in continuing education classes offered by his union or at city institutions?

Some colleges of the City University of New York run courses for supers. Among them, New York City College of Technology in downtown Brooklyn offers courses in boiler operation and maintenance, basic electrical and plumbing maintenance, the Department of Environmental Protection's "Air Pollution Control" certification course, locksmithing, preparation for the fire department's standpipe and sprinkler certification, and a correspondence course, "Efficient Operation and Maintenance of Multi-Family Buildings."

That last class is "taught" by Dick Koral, director of the college's Apartment House Institute. He becomes the student's personal tutor via mail, phone, and/or e-mail. A course that is usually oversubscribed, which occurs each fall semester, is the maintenance course sponsored by Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, where the students are both managers and superintendents. (For more information, call 718-552-1161.)

A valuable source for growth is the Superintendents Club of New York, with its monthly technical meetings in downtown Brooklyn and the Bronx. The Bronx meetings, at Hostos Community College, should be the first choice for Hispanic workers who have any difficulty with English. For more information, you can go to www.nysupersclub.org, read the material there, and sign up for a free subscription to the club's monthly newsletter, Super! which always contains technical articles pertaining to the superintendent's work.

"For all supers, but especially those who are relative neophytes at their profession," says Koral, "the manager and the co-op/condo board should impress on the super that his/her expertise is valued and that the super's efforts to enhance the requisite skills will be supported with (1) time away from their building to attend training sessions and (2) tuition assistance for same."

Supers can also take advantage of programs offered by their property's management firm. Nearly five years ago, for example, AKAM founded a superintendents' club. The idea was to create an atmosphere of camaraderie and fellowship among the 75 superintendents and resident managers who serve the AKAM portfolio. The club is a "think tank" where the supers meet, exchange ideas and experiences, and learn from each other. In addition, AKAM brings in professionals, vendors, and contractors from the real estate industry to give educational seminars and demonstrations to inform the group on the latest technology, maintenance techniques, and management skills to enhance their job performance.

Last year, when new fire safety regulations were put into effect, AKAM had a representative from the New York City Fire Department address a club meeting to explain the rules and discuss how to design a site-specific evacuation plan. Because superintendents and resident managers are responsible for and supervise a maintenance staff, AKAM invited Peter Finn, the house counsel for the Realty Advisory Board, to discuss the process of progressive corrective discipline of building employees and the appropriate protocol to follow when a problem arises.

AKAM is not alone in offering such opportunities. Many other firms hold regular meetings and/or stage seminars to educate their superintendents. "I just had a seminar this morning with all my supers about roof tanks," reports Leslie Winkler, director of management at Penmark Realty. "We do that regularly as a way to exchange ideas and information."

"There are some fantastic classes out there," says Jonathan Flemister, a resident manager at the Penmark-managed Richmond Condominium at 201 East 80th Street. He has taken advantage of them, too, having completed courses in commercial property management, building design, systems and operation I & II, as well as courses offered by the Thomas Shortman Training Institute of Local 32B-32J. He has certificates to operate standpipes, sprinklers, and compressors and is a member of the Manhattan Resident Managers Club. "This job is about perpetual education," he explains.

TECHNO MAN

Does he have technological skills? Is he willing to acquire them if he doesn't? With e-mailed instructions and computerized work orders and punch lists, technological skills are becoming more and more necessary for the modern superintendent. Whether he is using a Mac or a PC, prepping jobs or communicating with the board, the super needs computer skills. Many go back to school to get them. "A lot of our men love the opportunity to enhance their knowledge," says Penmark's Winkler. Agrees MGRE's Greenbaum: "Computers are becoming important in the super's world. They are integral."

At a 124-unit MGRE-managed building on Long Island, for example, superintendent Roni Modesto used his digital camera and computer to prepare a slide show for the board to help explain what was needed for the roof work. Flemister says the modern resident manager/superintendent is "required to use a computer. I'll get e-mails from residents like, 'Remember, the toilet in 3B is clogged.' The computer helps in communication."

In another instance, Zenel Perezic, resident manager at River Cross, a 377-unit cooperative on Roosevelt Island, uses the computer to monitor work orders and has even designed an in-house database on resident needs, vendor prices, and other matters. "He tracks everything," explains Mitchell Hammer, the co-op's property manager.

How good a politician is he? Does he have necessary people skills to deal with the board, the manager, the residents, and the staff? A good superintendent must have an affable personality but also be a good psychologist, understanding how to satisfy the needs of four different sets of people: the board, the managing agent, the residents, and his staff. "Not only does he have to have knowledge of repairs, but he has to have social skills," says Meister, the manager. "He has to be a great politician. If you have 200 shareholders, you have 200 opinions. He has to have political skills."

The superintendent has to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his staff, supervising them, giving them guidance, and inspiring them. To encourage initiative, for example, Flemister not only praises good work, but also allows the men to suggest projects on which they would like to work, such as painting the boiler room. "I want them to know that we value team effort around here, that we're all working together."

The condition of the superintendent's work area may be a good indication of how good a leader he is. "If you walk into the super's office and it's a mess," says J. Brian Peters, director of management at Rose Associates, "you have to ask yourself, 'How is he going to train doormen to present themselves to the public? The guy has to have technical skills, but also supervisory skills, as well. He has to be a model for his staff."

How the super works with the manager is key since a power struggle between these two important individuals can leave a property in serious trouble. "You have to have a good relationship with the managing agent," admits Nick Orosco, a 16-year-veteran super at 404 Riverside Drive, a 48-unit co-op. "That's very important."

Orosco learned from experience. After years of working well with the co-op's property manager and earning kudos and respect from the board for doing a good job, he came up against a new agent who insisted that Orosco account for "every screw and nail" he bought. The super, generally agreeable, was insulted and the board sided with him - but not without ruffled feelings and a breakdown in communication.

"We trust Nick implicitly," says Dick Pollack, the co-op president. "This [new] manager wanted to create a boss hierarchy where she was on top. We didn't need that kind of hierarchy. He doesn't have to sign a chit for screws."

Most experts argue that a hierarchy can be a good thing. Supers should generally get their instructions from the manager, who is acting on instructions by the board. If, on the other hand, he were getting instructions from dozens of other people, including board members and even residents, confusion would result.

"You have to establish some sort of chain-of-command," Picaso explains. "If everyone on the board is going to give the employees orders, it will be chaos. It's better to have orders being given to the super by the agent and maybe one board liaison, such as the president."

In fact, it is inevitable, with both living at the property, that the super and the president will develop a rapport. Orosco, with nearly two decades under his belt, is highly prized by the board and attends every board meeting, along with the manager. Flemister, who has nothing but praise for Leslie Winkler, his co-op's managing agent, admits that he also interacts with the president and attends every board meeting to make a resident manager's report. (Whether a super attends a meeting, naturally, depends on the building's preferences, needs, and policy.)

Where the manager at 404 Riverside Drive erred, then, was in not appreciating the nature of the relationship between the superintendent and the board and recognizing the value Orosco brought to the building. "The manager always has to realize that the super's real boss is the board," observes Picaso. "If the board is happy and the super is happy, then why change it? The only time I would do that is if I found that the super was not as good as they think. Then I would begin an education process, of the super and the board."

Does he plan ahead? Or does he simply react to problems as they occur? An important quality your superintendent should have is the ability to take the initiative and prepare preventive maintenance programs. Among other things, he should be suggesting repairs and/or improvements for the building to the board and managing agent. A good super should know the ins and outs of a building and its systems and, in conjunction with the managing agent, suggest ideas for a preventive maintenance program. For instance, Orosco prepared a plan to replace the cold water lines which he presented at a board meeting, while Flemister suggested and then implemented the planning and installation of an extensive roof garden and recreation area at his 100-unit property.

The topnotch super may also look for ways to save money by hiring the right staff. Meister cites superintendent Dan Lynch, who worked for years on Manhattan's West Side as a junior super: "He was a super/handyman and great with people." When an East Side building became available, he transferred there as a super. The co-op had been spending $75,000 to $100,000 a year on plastering bills. Lynch hired a handyman who was skilled at plastering. Meister says that the co-op saved "a fortune" in plastering bills when it subsequently renovated its hallways.

Is he dependable in a crisis? Will he go the extra mile (literally and figuratively) to restore a building to normal? Crisis management is key to a superintendent's job and how well he handles an emergency can be a good indication of how well he handles the job in general. Orosco earned respect from the board when, two months into his tenure (and while still on a trial period), he had to respond to a pair of crises. In the first, the aging, much-repaired boiler exploded in the middle of the night and created a flood. Orosco, who was not yet living in the building, traveled from his home in Brooklyn immediately and took care of the problem. In the second incident, the pumps for the water tanks expired, so the building had no hot water. He quickly found low-cost, quality replacements.

CLEAN AND INCORRUPTIBLE

Is he conscientious about the building's image? Does he understand the thinking and wishes of the board? The clearest sign that a superintendent is good or bad is how well the building is maintained, and how well he understands the wishes of the board. As one president says about his building's exemplary super: "He understands what we want before we want it."

For example, when superintendent Jonathan Flemister first applied for his current job at 201 East 80th Street, he noticed two things right away: the lobby door was carelessly left open - forcing the lobby air conditioning system to work inefficiently - and the doormen wasn't wearing white gloves. Although the gloves were a policy question, Flemister pointed it out to the board as one that reflected on the property's image. "This is a posh, white-glove building," he says. "The look of the lobby and the staff should bear that out."

Is he honest? Is he willing to let the board put procedures in place to make sure everything stays above board? The superintendent has a great deal of power over the fate of the building and his reputation should be above reproach. Boards, some of which have been harmed by once-trusted agents who took kickbacks, may be wary of giving too much power to a single employee. They are correct to be concerned and should sign off on pricey purchase orders and have a system of checks and balances in place.

Nonetheless, experts also argue that there is not a lot of opportunity for costly corruption in the superintendent's job. The super rarely has sole (or any) responsibility for bidding out big-ticket items like roof repairs or façade work. "On big projects, the specs are provided by the architect/engineer and then we have a separate purchasing process that bids it out," says Lynn Whiting, director of management at Argo. "The super is not involved in the bidding process." For smaller jobs, the super has a work ticket on which the manager or board president has to sign off.

Some think that, to a certain degree, you have to know your man, and if you can't trust him after a decade or more, you never will. Others say it is a question of practicality. "If the temptation is there, it is for penny-ante stuff," observes Pollack, the board president. "When Nick needs copper pipe for a plumbing catastrophe, we don't want him to put in a requisition to the manager and get it approved; we trust him. And he'll show me or the treasurer all the bills before we sign off on paying him. We don't want to hamper his speed by nickel-and-diming him. This is not $180,000 for a new boiler or $40,000 to put in a new roof. We're talking about relatively small expenses. We've been burned by managing agents in the past - one is in jail in Florida - so we know about corruption."

Where honesty problems can arise is in relatively minor areas: how much the super charges for supplies or extra work he gets, or if he displays favoritism to those residents who give him bigger tips. "This is petty stuff that does not rise to the level of concern others have experienced in New York," says Herb Cooper-Levy, a former co-op consultant.

Nonetheless, to ensure fairness, some management firms, like Argo, put in controls, requiring an estimate before a superintendent does any in-apartment work, and then the manager signs off on it after completion.

The savvy super will realize it is to his advantage to underbid on in-house jobs that he performs, not overprice them. "The smart super realizes he has a captive audience," explains Arthur Davis, a co-op consultant. "He will realize that if he charges a marginally lower fee than an outside contractor, he will get the job. He may get less, but he has no overhead since he lives there. By doing the job inexpensively and well, he can create good will and more referral work." He can also earn a good extra income.

And the smart board, in turn, will see there are advantages to having a well-compensated, happy super. For a happy super is usually a good captain and will guide your ship safely into port. "This guy is a member of the management team," says Peters. "Our philosophy is that the resident manager, or super, is a critical part of that team. He doesn't usurp the role of the manager but works in conjunction with him."

"The most important person in the building is the super," adds Winkler. "He is more important than the managing agent. A good super is the key to running the building."

 

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