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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

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Tips from the Top

David Woolard, president of a small Brooklyn co-op, sometimes feels over-engaged and overbooked. No wonder: he’s a theater costume designer and can be in New York one week, San Francisco the next, Houston after that, and then Chicago. But he still manages to be a successful leader. “He’s good at effectively communicating with the shareholders,” says a fellow board member, who notes that Woolard is well-organized, businesslike, and also attentive to the needs of the shareholders. He has learned the lesson that most good co-op and condo leaders have learned – that juggling personal, professional, and housing business is a crucial skill.

Still, what distinguishes the average board president from a successful one? Excellent communication skills and experience, naturally. Yet is there more? Are there techniques used by good leaders to get the job done more efficiently? To answer that question, we talked with five presidents who have over three decades of board experience between them. Their answers follow.

The Cell Phone as Secretary

David Woolard
Age: 47
Building: 16-unit co-op in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
What He Does Full Time: A theatrical costume designer who travels extensively.
Length of Board Service: Four years; one previous term as president in 2001.

What Others Say About Him: “One of things that he is good at is effectively communicating with the shareholders in the building through e-mails, and he leaves notes down in the lobby that say what’s going on,” says the treasurer, Sam McPherson. “We have a very troublesome board member – a sponsor who is on the board – and he is a very difficult man to deal with. David is very effective in doing his best to keep the sponsor at bay, by keeping emotions out of it, and just tries as much as he can to direct the conversation back to the business at hand.”

Tip: “I use my cell phone as my secretary,” explains Woolard. “At first, I didn’t use my cell phone at all – [but] seven or eight years ago, it just naturally became the de facto thing – ‘please just call this number.’ I had this [cell phone] number, I had my home number and my studio number, and I realized that I was spending all of my time checking messages in all the different places. I really needed to consolidate this. So now, anything regarding work – and I view the co-op board as work – that’s cell phone business.”

He never answers his cell phone when it rings. If people call him at home, or at his studio, he tells them to call his cell phone, leave a number and time that is best for him to get back to them, what the business is about, and that he will call them back.

Why It Works: By directing all co-op-related calls to his cell phone, Woolard manages to do two things at once: keep all the information he needs about his building in one mobile file and restrict the clutter of the co-op board confined to the tiny, yet powerful memory of his cell phone.

“If I had an office job, it would be a totally different story,” he explains. But by using a cell phone, “This is how I can control – if one can control – my time more effectively.” By determining when and how he is going to answer his phone, “It lets you focus on what you are supposed to be doing, which is helpful.”

Walking Tour

May Fisher
Age: 72
Building: 57-unit co-op in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.
What She Does Full Time: Retired from a 30-year career of teaching that spanned two continents.
Length of Board Service: About 10 years.

What Others Say: “The energy she has and her attention to detail, and her micromanaging – it has its plusses and minuses – are very effective,” says Cynthia Isaacs, a fellow board director. “She sees everything and she really has the energy to follow through on it. She was very persistent in raising the maintenance and parking lot fees. Even though this would be a hardship for her, she is not thinking of herself, she is thinking of the co-op.”

“She is very organized and she is very much a team player,” adds Peter Burgess, president of Peter Burgess Management. “She is not the type of person who sits there, as president, and says, ‘I want this, I want that.’ She is very much a contributor and a helper, with the board and with management.”
Tip: Every two weeks, Fisher puts on her walking shoes, steps out her front door into the elevator and rides the cab seven stories, to the top floor. Then she begins the slow, careful inspection of her building, by herself or with the managing agent.

“I start at about ten in the morning. If I do the outside, too, it takes 45 minutes to an hour all told,” she observes. Each floor is checked for cleanliness and safety. Fisher goes over the layout with a fine-tooth comb: are the lights working, are the floors clean, are the apartment doors damaged in any way? Does the compactor work correctly? Is the laundry room clean? Outside, she walks around the building, checking on the flower bed and eyeballing all the fire escapes. Finally, she pokes her head into the recycling area.

Why It Works: “There are always changes in boards,” she notes, “always changes in management,” and the result is “there doesn’t seem to be enough of a continuity,” either in knowledge of the building or in the best practices for running the building. And that’s something that will only change by example, by one person developing a good habit that she can pass on to others. That is why she is out in the building, walking each floor, despite the pain of a spinal disability. Showing other board members and shareholders what to do “is something I think is a good thing for the board president to develop.”

Work Orders = Accountability

George Karpodinis
Age: 56
Building: 234-unit, two-building co-op on Fort Washington Avenue near Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan.
What He Does Full Time: Marketing and management.
Length of Board Service: Three years; president for one-and-a-half.

What Others Say About Him: “George is a very effective president,” says Jack Greene, a fellow board director. “First and foremost, he has a very sound vision of what part of the housing market our co-op belongs in, so that it can always attract buyers who will find it a comfortable home. George is also a very good listener. He also has his ear to the ground, and is sensitive to what people are saying. On the flip side, he is very communicative. He goes out of his way to engage people in conversations, to show that he is there, that he is accessible, and to help draw out the issues and concerns that are in the minds of people here. George also keeps a sharp eye on the activities of the professionals we hire.”

Tip: He refined a work order system for the building. Whenever a shareholder needs work done in his or her unit, he or she picks up an order form from the lobby and fills it out. One copy goes to the super, one to the building manager, one to the maintenance committee of the board, and the shareholder keeps one. A representative of the maintenance committee checks to see that the work has been done.

Why It Works: The system makes it easier for the super because, says Karpodinis, it “helps him to organize what has to be done every day. It gives us [the board and building management] written permission from the resident to allow us into the apartment,” which means the super doesn’t have to run around and find a key. Finally, the four-part order form serves the role of a midyear review. “It’s our way of checking on both the property manager and the building staff, in terms of how they are doing their work.” He adds: “It’s creating a series of checks and balances, a sort of ‘me and my shadow’ approach that keeps everyone on the ball.”

A Clutter-Free E-Mail/File Folder System

Barbara Stein
Age: 48
Building: 92-unit co-op on West End Avenue in Manhattan.
What She Does Full Time: A vice president of retail merchandising systems.
Length of Board Service: Four years as treasurer and, just this past January, elected to a term as president.

What Others Say About Her: “It is very evident that she comes in well-prepared, has an agenda, does her best to stick to it, is decisive, allows other board members to participate, runs a good meeting, and moves things forward,” says Stuart Bardin, senior vice president of management at Heron.

Tip: She cuts down on clutter, in big and small ways. “Because e-mail is so convenient, there is a lot we can do during the course of the day,” says Stein. So, as e-mails stream back and forth between the board members, Stein makes it her task to keep all the e-mails in one string. As each person replies to someone, Stein is alerted and she cuts and pastes the reply, or summarizes it, in the next e-mail that she sends out.

Then there is the folder system, Stein’s secret for always knowing what is going on. Every day, she carries two folders with her, to and from work. One is labeled “Completed Issues.” Data in that folder is no more than two or three months old. The second folder contains ongoing work, labeled “Open Issues.”

Why It Works: First, by keeping all the e-mails in one string, Stein ensures that the only e-mails that all the board members have to keep checking are the ones from the president. That makes for less clutter and happier colleagues. As for the folder system, she notes: “Every morning I look into this open folder.” As work gets done, the memo or e-mail gets moved to the completed folder, and then gets filed in the building archives. Less clutter, more efficiency.

Comparing Building Stats

Peter Demmer
Age: 60
Building: 42-unit, West 80s co-op in Manhattan.
What He Does Full Time: Runs a small financial consulting company.
Length of Board Service: Ten years. For the past three years, he has been the president of the building. Before that, he was the building’s treasurer.

What Others Say About Him: “Last year, Peter oversaw a major construction project in the building. Every apartment was affected and everyone suffered significant inconvenience,” notes Mary E. Enright, a fellow board director. “But under Peter’s leadership, the board made extraordinary efforts to minimize the impact on residents by providing good information, listening to people’s concerns, accommodating schedules, and arranging for excellent cleanup after the work was done.”

Tip: He regularly compares the building’s financial growth reports to those of similar co-ops around the city. With data supplied by the building’s management company, Tudor Realty, and statistics and averages supplied by the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, Demmer, first as treasurer and now as president, has been able to map out where the co-op is, in the constellation of maintenance and service costs among similarly situated buildings. The board has relied on Tudor and the council to give an accurate read on what other buildings are charging in maintenance and what they are paying in expenses. And the board has used that information to chart the smartest course between offering services and increasing revenue.

After collating all the information this year, Demmer and his colleagues discussed whether to raise maintenance or cut services. After much talk among the board members, says Demmer, the decision was made. This year, the decision was to raise maintenance by seven percent.

Why It Works: Because the board members understood that the building’s maintenance history was on a par with other co-ops its size around the city, they were able to sell the increase successfully to the shareholders. “Our maintenance is still lower than the median [of other buildings the same size], which means that half the buildings are higher, though we are still a little above average.”

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