New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Longevity

For long-time members, serving on the board isn’t just a job, it’s a calling. Eleven veterans offer advice, insight, and recollections from decades of experience.

They come from small buildings and large ones. Some do the management themselves; others hire professionals. Yet for all their differences they have two things in common: they care about their property – their home – and they are long-term board members (some might even call them “lifers”).

Why do some directors stay on their boards for years? What have they learned from their experiences? What are their hopes and fears for their properties? After a decade – or more – on the job, what insights and advice do they have for others? To answer those questions (and others), Habitat talked with 11 board directors in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Some used dark humor to explain their long service; others just accepted it as a given. But all agreed on one point: when living in a co-op or condo, you have to get involved.

RON BRAWER
Board tenure: 25 years
Profession: Film (screenwriter)
Offices held: Secretary, treasurer
Board size: 3 members (currently)
Co-op location: Flatiron District, Manhattan
Co-op size: 7 units
Management: Self-managed

Why he got on the board: “Initially, there were four of us who had moved into this building as the first tenants, back in ’74 and ’75. It was then owned by Eugene Pittanelli, who had an electric company. He was moving his operation to Queens, and he rented out these lofts. I was the second tenant, and he was pestering us to buy the building. We were joking around for three years saying, ‘Why would we want the building when we’re paying $300 a month rent and we don’t have any headaches?’ Then he started showing up with real estate brokers, and so we got nervous, and we bought the building. Basically, it was three people, so one of us was president, one was treasurer, and one secretary.”

His view of the board, then and now: “When we first started, it was a very low-key position, being on the board. Basically, there was not much to do. We thought we should probably get our C of O [certificate of occupancy]. There really wasn’t that much to do, as long as the heating bills were paid. The real estate taxes were low since there was nothing much happening in the neighborhood. Of course, that’s all changed, especially in the last five or six years, with the neighborhood becoming so popular, the mall stores coming in, and people trying to put up buildings now on every piece of available land.”

His greatest satisfaction: “My greatest satisfaction is getting that real estate tax rebate every year. We also are just finally getting our C of O. The name of our corporation is Green Turtle Realties. That was invented by the lawyer who initially put together the purchase from our former landlord, but it certainly proved apt to describe how we move. It’s a combination of trying to run it ourselves, trying to be the contractor ourselves for every piece of work we do, and trying not to have a lot of assessments, but saving up for projects that need to be done.”

His greatest challenge: “We really have to be on top of the situation with the taxes – filing tax protests and filing for rebates. Fuel oil, of course, has gone way up, and this year they’re saying it’s going to go up another 30 percent. Inspections – I don’t know why, it seems like there are more inspections than there ever were before – for elevators and boilers, and façades. It just seems as if there are a million more things to do now than there were 25 years ago. In fact, one of the biggest and most frustrating things was dealing with the Landmarks Preservation Commission after the area was landmarked. We had a problem with the windows that were replaced on one of the floors that, according to Landmarks, had to be returned to the way they were. But no one had a drawing or a photograph of how they were, and we claimed that this is how they were; we just replaced the windows. It dragged on for three or four years.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “That all the inspections are done in a timely manner so that violations don’t accrue. If you get a notice about something and you put it in the drawer figuring, ‘Oh, I’ll take care of it next week,’ suddenly that week has passed by and you get a violation in the mail for $300, or whatever. So that’s one thing that took me a while to realize, that when you get a notice, you’ve got to move on it right away.”

His advice to new board members: “Get a good management company. Self-management just takes so much time and energy. Also, a management company usually knows about tax breaks that are coming down the pike that you might not be aware of. If you can save your building $4,000 a year here and $2,000 there, it pays for the management company.”

Why he still serves: “It’s somewhat by default, and also because I seem to be the person who’s home and can deal with all the things that come up. In our building, the treasurer pretty much runs the building. I serve because I know that the job is getting done. There is some satisfaction in that.”

MIKE GORDON
Board tenure: 21 years
Profession: Retail (small store owner)
Offices held: Secretary, treasurer, vice president
Board size: 7 members (currently)
Co-op location: Park Slope, Brooklyn
Co-op size: 27 units
Management: Self-managed

Why he got on the board: “When the co-op was first formed, the initial reaction was you’re looking for volunteers, and whoever steps forward is pretty much on the board. That’s usually what happens, especially in smaller co-ops. I stepped forward – or at least I didn’t step back.”

His view of the board, then and now: “We seem to be more knowledgeable about things than we were. When we first started we were all novices. We were at the mercy of a sponsor, and there were obviously problems in taking over a new co-op from a sponsor. Now we’ve got a core of good people; they’ve been on the board for a while. We get along. We’ve never had any real fighting – nobody storming out or that kind of thing.”

His greatest satisfaction: “At the very beginning, I would say just being able to get rid of the sponsor and being able to complete the buildings. The buildings were left in incomplete states by the sponsor. We had a lawsuit, we sued, and we won. Now we are deemed to be – from the feedback of the real estate agents in the area – a well-run co-op. Judging by the property values and the recent sales of apartments in the building, that seems to be true because our numbers are up. We’re getting good sales in the buildings.”

His greatest challenge: “The usual financial challenges of keeping everybody on board and trying to keep the building affordable for whoever is living in it. Many times, you have a lot of wild cards that come at you. All of a sudden, you have an insurance bill that is a lot higher or the mayor raising property taxes eighteen-and-a-half percent. But because we have raised maintenance on a regular basis, we didn’t have to raise it as much as I understand some co-ops or condos did. We have basically treated ourselves like a rental building, where we raise the maintenance at a steady rate of two percent a year – nobody gets hit between the eyes with an increase.”

Innovative/unusual program: “The fact that when we took over the buildings we were probably the first of the co-ops [in our size range] to be self-managed. We weren’t big enough for a real full-time manager, yet we just felt we had to take control of the buildings at the time.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “To maintain the continuity. The person that’s the vice president in effect would be my replacement. But, right now, I’m wearing two hats. Part of it stems from the fact that my working in the area made it easier for me to do it. I am the president of the corporation; I’m also the treasurer. So the maintenance is collected in-house. Nobody’s mailing anything to us. I collect it and make the bank deposits and pay the bills. What really is difficult sometimes is when you have an ongoing project and you have to oversee it to some degree. You can give a contractor just so much leeway, but you still have to watch what they do. So my biggest concern would be that if I were to step off there might be a groundswell that maybe the building should go back to some sort of professional management that would cost us even more than what it costs us now for in-house managing. (I do get an offset on my maintenance for managing).”

His advice to new board members: “Listen to what’s going on before trying to make any attempts at any change or any real heavy suggestions – where the board itself is on a lot of things before really jumping in.”

ALAN HERSHOWITZ
Board tenure: 11 years
Profession: Financial services
Offices held: Secretary, treasurer, president
Board size: 5 members (currently)
Co-op location: Upper West Side, Manhattan
Co-op size: 54 units
Management: Professional

Why he got on the board: “I was married at the time and my wife thought that it would be a good thing for us to get representation on the board. We were kind of paranoid – that if we weren’t there watching things they’d be taking advantage of us.”

His view of the board, then and now: “Then, I thought it was a very useful and necessary function for the building. It was an enormous responsibility and there was a lot to learn. I kind of hung back and observed, and I’d give my input into things but I rarely initiated much for a while. I wanted to see how things were run, and it was a matter of getting my orientation, seeing what the board responsibilities were, and weighing in on a lot of the problems that we had. We had a few tenant problems to deal with, a few capital issues to address. But by and large it ran very smoothly.

“From then until now, I’ve gone through various roles. I’ve gotten more responsibilities. I took a five-year break from being on the board at one time, and then was asked to come in the middle of a very fractious time here. There was an opening for treasurer, and I had done a lot of work on refinancing our mortgage. They needed somebody who could reach out to the people who felt left out of the process or disenfranchised. At that time, the board was mixed between people who were sitting back and watching and people who were quite frankly micro-managing everything. In any case, the board composition changed. I stayed on, and it’s been pretty good since.”
His greatest satisfaction: “The best thing that I did was push for a fully amortizing mortgage on the building and was able to present the whys and wherefores of that to shareholders and the various options we were looking at to get their buy-in.”

His greatest challenge: “We’re trying to institute a transfer fee – a flip tax. That will be a challenge, but I’m sure we can sell it. We have a committee now that is looking into it, gathering material, pro and con. We plan to have several shareholder-wide meetings to discuss it. It had been presented about six, seven years ago and was voted down narrowly. But at that time there wasn’t any real discussion. So, I think once we get it open for debate we should be able to accomplish that.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “My main concern is that the people coming in, at the very least, act in the corporation’s best interests and not their own, and that the board not be subject to in-fighting or micro-managing.”

His advice to new board members: “They should observe what is going on, and reach into themselves to see what they feel they can contribute – but within the confines of what they’re learning about what a board actually does, and what its responsibilities are.”

Why he still serves: “I would not step down if I felt that it would create a lack of experience on the board. If it was all new people, I don’t think I would go for that. I feel a responsibility to be there and help out until such time as somebody else can come on and learn the ropes. It’s a thankless job in many respects. It’s difficult when there are problems in the building between people and you have to mediate. You end up being a cop. It takes dedication. If there were one or two people who had been on the board long enough to set the correct boundaries, then I feel I’d be able to step down.”

ANGELA HIRSCH
Board tenure: 20 years
Profession: Legal (administrative assistant)
Offices held: President
Board size: 7 members (currently)
Co-op location: Forest Hills, Queens
Co-op size: 100 units
Management: Professional

Why she got on the board: “I kept hearing we were going to be having our windows re-done. And this went on for about two years while I was busy propping up my window with a bamboo stick. Finally, I decided to go find out what was going on. That was the beginning of the end, or the beginning of my continuing.”

Her view of the board, then and now: “I didn’t have too much experience of one when I first went on the board, but I certainly found it very interesting. The board was pretty cohesive, as it still is. We are certainly, as our managing agent tells me, one of the most active boards he’s ever worked with.”

Her greatest satisfaction: “Actually getting to see the windows installed. I’m progressing from there. The thing that I’m proudest of is having our little back garden – what was originally a mountain of rocks and rubble and rubbish – made user-friendly and also friendly for the disabled.”

Her greatest challenge: “Getting things done; having enough money to pay for them. Thank God, we don’t have any major challenges right now, but we’ve certainly had a lot of projects. We’ve done everything to comply with Local Law 11. We’ve done all internal decorations and lighting and signage and new front doors, new windows, new everything. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve got.”

Innovative/unusual program: “Nothing particularly comes to mind except that we certainly try to stay on top of things, and I’ve always been one of these people that finds prevention is better than [looking for] a cure. So maybe it’s not being so innovative, but more just staying on top of doing what needs to be done.”

Her greatest concern if she stepped down: “That the people that are on the board would [not] be as proactive as I’ve been.”

Her advice to new board members: “Read through the past minutes, at least for the previous year. Pay attention to the financials, get somebody to show you around the building, and try to turn up at all the meetings. Because it’s an ongoing story. It’s very difficult, if somebody is not at a meeting, to find the time to catch everybody up on what they’ve missed.”

Why she still serves: “I have a vested interest in the building. I know how much time it takes to do all this. More often than not, when there hasn’t been anybody else to step up to the plate, I’ve volunteered my services again. Obviously, I will continue if there’s nobody else to do it. But I have noticed in the past few years there’s been more interest shown in wanting to serve, so I think maybe it’s now my time to let others take over.”

MARALYN JABOUR
Board tenure: 11 years
Profession: Real estate (administrative assistant)
Offices held: President
Board size: 10 members (currently)
Co-op location: Midtown, Manhattan
Co-op size: 10 units
Management: Self-management

Why she got on the board: “Part of it is to protect your own interest, to make sure that decisions are not made that you feel are not in your interest. But the other thing is that the work is being done by volunteers, and if you’re standing off to the sidelines letting everybody else do all the work, it’s kind of unethical.”

Her view of the board, then and now: “I definitely have grown in appreciation for the importance of being business-like. It felt more like a club when I first joined – not that they were functioning that way, but that’s kind of how I viewed it. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of being business-like, and there’s a thread of history that is formed in your corporate documents that becomes important. We’re constantly striving to improve our legacy so that we can, at a glance, know where we’ve come from and where we’re going.”

Her greatest satisfaction: “We had an imbalance when I first got into the co-op. One family occupied two apartments, but only had one vote. Another shareholder occupied one apartment but had two votes, because we essentially had an illegal sublet. It was a situation that was allowed to go on for 12 years, and we finally resolved that so that we now have 10 shareholders with 10 votes, equally distributed. That’s probably the most important change.”

Her greatest challenge: “The three challenges that all boards face are the physical plant, fiscal responsibility, and a sense of community. Do people feel like they’re coming home or coming into a war zone? So, navigating the personality conflicts is a very big part of the challenge of being on a board.”

Innovative/unusual program: “Our system of having everybody represented on the board is probably the most unusual thing we do. We used to have just five members, but, beginning with my term as president, we changed it and put all resident-shareholders on the board. It eliminates the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We’re such a small co-op that it just made more sense for everybody to go ahead and put their heads together.”

Her greatest concern if she stepped down: “I would be concerned about whether a more powerful personality would end up pushing through things that were self-serving. I suppose every co-op’s got somebody who is willing to do more work, but sometimes that goes along with doing more work specifically on their own behalf. I’m a little concerned about what would happen to that balance.”

Her advice to new board members: “Educate yourselves because there is so much to learn. Keep your eye on the long term rather than the short term. When you come in you kind of think, ‘It’s a club,’ and you’re solving whatever your most immediate concern is. But when you’re dealing with the structure and the evolution of a community that is very interdependent, you do want to look at the long run.”

Why she still serves: “I grow in appreciation for all the work that has to be done and the challenges, and sort of feel like this challenge of getting our paperwork in order is a big one, and I want to help meet that challenge. The main reason that I stay on as president is that I don’t have a personal agenda, and I’m a ‘get along’ kind of person. So one of my greatest values is that I can keep people from going at each other’s throats.”

LEWIS KOBAK
Board tenure: 30 years
Profession: Real estate (management)
Offices held: President
Board size: 9 members (currently)
Co-op location: Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn
Co-op size: 324 units
Management: Professional

Why he got on the board: “I’ve lived in this co-op since its inception in 1954. I moved in here with my parents when I was 16 years old. When I got married in 1960, I purchased my own apartment here. I was solicited by officers of the board when I was 24 or so, and I very reluctantly agreed to serve because it was a venture into the unknown. I was young, busy with my wife raising a family, and starting out in a career and thought perhaps it might be too much. But I quickly adapted to it, and got very, very involved, spending a lot of time on it.”

His view of the board, then and now: “In the early years, it was completely different. A brand new co-op required so much less input than after it aged. We realized – within the first ten years – that it was necessary to become a proactive board. In the beginning, we were more reactive. When things needed to be repaired or replaced, we responded, but we weren’t always necessarily prepared with the funds and the wherewithal and the knowledge when things were not as well organized. So we began to realize that most of the capital improvement projects shouldn’t come as a surprise. When your boiler and burner system is approaching 30 years old, it’s going to be very shortly in need of replacement.”

His greatest satisfaction: “We are in a much superior state of repair; we are just about in the best financial position we have ever been in with regard to reserves and budget balancing.”
His greatest challenge: “Probably the greatest challenge over the years was trying to maintain a full qualifying board. That got more and more difficult as the years went on. Apathy among the shareholders is very common. Unfortunately, there’s always a relatively small group in any organization that runs the show. So, trying to keep the number of board members and the quality of board members fairly consistent has always been our biggest challenge. Unfortunately, the apathy seems to increase in direct proportion to the shareholder satisfaction of the board’s performance.”

What happened when he stepped down: “I had given up my business but I wasn’t really ready to retire. So for my last three years on the board, I pretty much became a full-time board member because I had so much more time. At that time, the board evidently had a conversation about this and came to me, and asked me to become general manager because they felt that the level of management would be considerably increased. They felt that I had prepared the board sufficiently by training the vice president, who was also on the board for many years, to step up and become president and for me to step off the board and become general manager.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down as manager: “My concern would be that there would be people on the board who would step up and rise to the challenge of taking on more responsibility. When I became general manager, a good deal of the work that was previously done by the board came to me. So, you know, I put in a lot more hours than the two hours a day that the [previous] management company [had] provided.”

His advice to new board members: “Run the other way. No, I’m only kidding. Hang back for the first six months to a year and soak up and learn as much as you possibly can from the more experienced board members. Don’t hesitate to ask any question that pops into your head. The only stupid questions are those that are not asked. Try to get involved in all areas of the board, so that you’re not confined to one little box. This will give you a better working picture of what goes on and what should be going on. And then, once you finally get some knowledge and some experience, don’t hesitate to be active in participating in everything that goes on.”

Why he served so long: “It’s a struggle to maintain the right number of board members with people who are not only willing and able to serve, but who demonstrate some qualifications to serve. This is one of probably the main reasons why so many board members like myself serve for so many years. I’d be less than truthful if I told you that that was the only reason that I served for 30 years. After a while, it became a part of my life. It was to my benefit because I live here too. It just becomes part of you. And perhaps there were times when I felt that it was time to leave or I had had enough, and at those times I didn’t because I felt a sense of obligation and loyalty, and didn’t want to see all of my hard work and contributions go down the drain. So I hung in there. But those were not the majority of times – they were the minority of times. It was a nice feeling to contribute to the well-being of the entire co-op.”

ROBERT PAVONE
Board tenure: 10 years
Profession: Travel industry (project manager)
Offices held: Secretary, president
Board size: 5 members (currently)
Co-op location: Park Slope, Brooklyn
Co-op size: 40 units
Management: Professional

Why he got on the board: “Someone – one of the previous board members – moved and left the board. There was a vacancy, and the board at the time asked me to join. I wasn’t voted on. I got appointed as a result of this person stepping down.”

His view of the board, then and now: “There is much more structure [now]. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. In the beginning, we had a board president who was retired, so he had plenty of time to devote to day-to-day operations. Things worked. But as the makeup of the building changed with regard to shareholders, we had to really fine-tune operations. So it’s much more structured now than it was ten years ago. We had relied on his style and his ability to manage. When he left we really had no choice but to pick up a lot of the slack. Everyone on the board right now is a professional. As a result, we actually expect more from the management company. Ten years ago, they paid bills and we didn’t ask them to do anything else.”

His greatest satisfaction: “We have a lot more structure and we’re a lot more organized with regard to finances and how the building is managed. We’re pretty careful to set some financial restrictions in terms of how we spend money. That’s gotten us through a number of crises. We had that 18 percent real estate tax increase about two or three years ago, and we were able to respond to it favorably. We’ve put together an effective presentation for shareholders to be able to explain what was going on.”

His greatest challenge: “Communication is always a challenge. It’s so important to be able to communicate effectively with shareholders. The responsibility falls squarely on the board. We don’t look to the management company to handle any of the communication, and it just becomes a challenge for us to be able to manage that. Where we’ve been able to control it is with the personal relationships between board members and their neighbors. Shareholders are comfortable asking questions, and we can respond.”

Innovative/unusual program: “We were able to get a flip tax in place about two or three years ago. It was very close on the heels of a huge maintenance increase. We also had an assessment running for a major capital improvement, and the whole business of initiating an assessment and the increase in real estate – it caused us to put together a sound plan, which included a flip tax. We actually got shareholders to agree to it. It wasn’t an overwhelming 90 percent – I mean we got the required two-thirds vote – but we did it and I thought that was pretty amazing.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “It would be a question of consistency. Serving on the board as long as I have, it can work in your favor or it can work against you. Of course, if the building isn’t being managed properly it’s going to work against you. If things are going well, it’s a sign that the board is leading the building in the right direction. If I left, that would be my concern – that the next board basically stays the course in terms of some of the policies that we’d put in place.”

His advice to new board members: “It’s so important to understand the detailed finances of the building. My neighbors are terrific. We’ve got a great bunch of people, and they’re pretty supportive. I don’t have to deal with personality issues and conflicts and things of that nature. That allows me to focus on the financials. One really needs to get a grip on the finances, and one needs to be able to at least put a financial plan in place. You should know the finances inside and out. If you can do that, most things fall into place. If you don’t have a grasp of the finances, when you start getting questions, your credibility is shot.”

Why he still serves: “It can be frustrating, and there are times that I just want to turn it in and turn the reins over to somebody else. But when I look at what we’ve done and the direction the building is going in, I want to make sure it keeps going in that same direction.”

 

MITCH PICKMAN
Board tenure: 21 years
Profession: Retail (small business owner)
Offices held: President
Board size: 7 members (currently)
Co-op location: Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Co-op size: 39 units
Management: Professional

Why he got on the board: “I bought the co-op in ’83 and, after the first two years I was in the building, the co-op basically was going broke. So a couple of people in the building, including myself, decided to run and oust the old board because they weren’t good at management.”

His view of the board, then and now: “In ’83, a lot of us were more pioneers with co-ops. A lot of the people that come onto the board now have already been involved in owning either condos or co-ops. Otherwise, it’s pretty similar. In co-ops, you get a lot of apathy with owners and stuff until something happens – you fire the super or something like that, then all of a sudden there’s a revolution.”

His greatest satisfaction: “That we’ve been financially sound. At the time [we started, in 1983], we were minus almost $6,000 in the reserve fund, and for 18 out of the 20 years I’ve been on the board we didn’t have to raise maintenance. We only raised it recently, since [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg [raised] the real estate taxes, and all the energy costs have gone up in the last three years. But up until about three years ago we went through for almost 18 years without an increase in maintenance. Plus, we’ve averaged in the last 18 years about $350,000 in the reserve fund.”

His greatest challenge: “Dealing with some of the owners is always a challenge. There are people that think of board members as being the owners of the building. They think of the board members as the landlords. Usually at all the annual meetings, I make the same speeches [saying] that, ‘You’re here to vote now. If you’re going to vote us in, we’re going to run this building the way we feel that it should be run and run efficiently, and we’re going to make decisions that are going to be in the best interests of everybody.’”

Innovative/unusual program: “I wish I could think of something really innovative, but no. No, we’re just basically, since I’ve been president, just straight ahead moving along, keeping the financials, keeping it secure, keeping the maintenance as low as we can, not wasting money on changing hallways into marble.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “I would just be worried that new people coming in or some of the people that have spent more for apartments than let’s say the older owners would want more services, or decide to change things.”

His advice to new board members: “Be open. The big thing is always to try to get newsletters around; we try to get newsletters around after every meeting to let people know what’s going on. And just be patient. I’ve been in retail my whole life, so it’s almost the same thing. You can’t get your egos involved when fighting with people.”

Why he still serves: “I’m a glutton for punishment. Basically, I’ve just been involved because I wanted to protect my investment. In most buildings, there’s a lot of apathy. So I stayed on the board for a few months [after stepping down], and then either the new president sold and moved or he was too busy, or he didn’t realize how much work was involved.”

MICHAEL SEKUS
Board tenure: 17 years
Profession: Financial services
Offices held: President
Board size: 5 members (currently)
Co-op location: Midtown, Manhattan
Co-op size: 30 units
Management: Self-management/professional does city filings

Why he got on the board: “One of the board members asked me if I was interested in running. It just seemed like a good thing to do at the time. [A year-and-a-half later,] the president was trying to use a [certain] contractor to do roof repairs and several of us on the board just didn’t think things were going quite right there. It just didn’t pass the smell test. He put it to us that we either approve his guy or he would quit the board. We didn’t, so he quit. I led that charge. The remaining people on the board said, ‘Okay, you’re president now.’”

His view of the board, then and now: “It’s a totally different cast of people. Since I’m semi-retired, I also manage the building. There’s a lot of reliance on me. When we were with William B. May [as manager], it was relatively easy, because they were well-organized. It’s more work now – every time there are repairs or things like that, then we have to do it ourselves, as opposed to just calling somebody up and telling them to get it done.”

His greatest satisfaction: “I feel satisfied that I know the building’s well-managed and under control, and that we keep a lean operation here, but yet keep everything functioning.”

His greatest challenge: “The thing that just drives me nuts is property taxes. And trying to get those down as low as possible. Somebody clued me in on this real early. We were still [under] J-51, so we weren’t paying property taxes way back when. But they said it would be worth our while, even though it would be money out of pocket, to fight our assessment. So we took our assessment from a little over two million dollars down to one-and-a-half million. The city just didn’t fight us because they weren’t getting anything from us anyway, so they decreased our assessed value and went away. Then when we did start paying property taxes, of course, we were in a much better position. Since then, they’ve been driving us up like crazy – which is true for everybody.”

Innovative/unusual program: “The biggest thing that we did that was probably different was fighting the taxes before we even paid taxes. That paid off nicely.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “Since I’ve been on the board now for 17 years and basically [been] president for most of that time, and also [act as manager], the biggest concern I would have is that we would have to probably pick a full-time agent. And then convey the history of the building to that person about how we do things.”

His advice to new board members: “Spend time listening and figuring out what’s going on as opposed to trying to demand anything or try to push something through. Make sure that you understand the cash flow of the building, where our money needs are, and what we do, and what we do to try to keep the maintenance as low as possible – that’s sort of crucial to running it successfully.”

 

JAN WILLEM VAN BERGEN
Board tenure: 14 years
Profession: Travel industry
Offices held: President
Board size: 7 members (currently)
Condo location: Midtown, Manhattan
Condo size: 654 units
Management: Professional

Why he got on the board: “I was on the ad hoc [tenants’] committee [when the building was built]. Because of my hotel background, I thought that I could be an asset to the building. Apparently I have been, because people keep re-electing me.”

His view of the board, then and now: “It consists of highly professional people from all walks of life, each one with their own know-how and input. For example, one secretary and VP was the vice chairman of DDB Needham Worldwide, a large advertising agency. We had bankers, some lawyers. It’s a professional board of high integrity, very high.”

His greatest satisfaction: “I try to make colleagues, partners, and board members understand that, number one, a reserve fund is of extreme and great importance. A couple of years ago, the board implemented a preventive maintenance program. So the life span of 99 percent of our equipment lasts a lot longer because management knows what equipment to look at. Everything is tagged. And in a building of such humongous size, it is quite important that preventive maintenance is done, and that the staff, under management guidance, looks at every single item to keep it up to date.”

His greatest challenge: “I keep the board meetings under an hour-and-a-half. The agenda is very strict and people come prepared. Problems are being addressed and decisions are being made. All, of course, with the help of management. There’s no need for us to sit there and bicker for hours.”

Innovative/unusual program: “When budget season arrives, I take the entire board on a few hours’ long walk throughout the building. We look at every single aspect of the back of the house – meaning, we go from the top, looking at the elevator shafts and the mechanical rooms, down to the basement. Because if management comes to us and says, ‘Hey, we need $20,000 for that,’ I want the board to understand why it is needed. We walk around with management and the building’s resident manager. Everything is on the preventive maintenance contract. That’s the only way to prolong the life span of every piece of equipment, save money in the long run, and also budget properly.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “When I travel, I always appoint an acting board president during my absence. I find that’s very important, because I go through the chain of command. I appointed the secretary, and then the VP, and then the treasurer. Each one gets a chance. That’s another thing I do. I rotate. I believe in this rotation. I also have board members conduct board meetings. That way, they can see what it takes, and the involvement it takes, and how serious it all is. Because this is an $800 million project.”

His advice to new board members: “Read the minutes. And then, in the beginning after being elected, spend a couple of hours a couple of times a week with management. That’s the approach we have had. For example, three years ago, we got two new board members. And after a couple of months, both made a statement at a board meeting saying that they had absolutely no clue as to what is involved. They are happy that they now have first-hand experience so they can tell it to other people. Spend some time with board members, and ask the appropriate questions at board meetings.”

Why he still serves: “I like seeing that the building is moving forward, keeping it up to par, keeping it up to luxury standards. And also seeing that we always live within our budget means. We never go over.”

 

GEORGE WILSON
Board tenure: 14 years
Profession: Financial services
Offices held: President
Board size: 5 members (currently)
Co-op location: Flatbush, Brooklyn
Co-op size: 126 units
Management: Professional

Why he got on the board: “I lived here prior to conversion. This was a rental building, and I was on the negotiating committee and was president of the tenants’ association. Back in 1988 and ’89, co-ops in Brooklyn were a new phenomenon. It was an experiment, really, and since I was in a leadership capacity in the tenants’ association, it just carried over when we co-opped.”

His view of the board, then and now: “When we first started, I had no idea as to what I was getting into. We really didn’t know, because we had never run the building before. The landlord paid the bills. Now we were paying our own bills, and making up our own budgets, and charting our own course. And it was in un-navigated waters for us. So, as seafarers, we jumped in, and we said, ‘We have to make the best of it.’ It’s like being a worker and then you become a shop steward, and although you still have the same people you work with as employees, now you’re in management, and now you have to view things from a business point of view. You are the landlord, so now it’s your responsibility.”

His greatest satisfaction: “We have transformed the building significantly. We did the repairs, we just completed putting in two brand new state-of-the art-elevators. We have created a courtyard that is viable for all the tenants, like a recreation area. We’re in the process of putting in a library in one of the basement rooms. We have a lot of residents with old books, and we said, ‘Why throw them out?’ They can pick up a book and read while they’re doing their laundry.”
His greatest challenge: “The upgrading of the building, because we have a lot of work to do and we have done a lot. The upgrading makes the building desirable; we have a waiting list. When an apartment become available it’s sold, and we have a waiting list of people willing to buy at a [good] market price.”

His greatest concern if he stepped down: “Stability. I’m in the process now of having [residents act as] ‘interns.’ We want to have an intern shadowing each board member, so that if the need arises, that intern can step right in. It’s like an assistant to each board member. I’m worried about continuity.”

His advice to new board members: “The finances are the heart of the building, and if your heart is healthy, it stands to reason that the body would follow. For many years, we did not have an increase in our maintenance, because we had managed well. In the last two years, because the energy bills are going out of the roof, we had two modest maintenance increases. Right now, with the oil situation being the way it is, we’re taking a hard, long look at our budget to see if we will have to make an adjustment.”

Why he still serves: “I live here. This is home. So that’s first and foremost. Secondly, we have to give back. I stay on the board because I want to give something back to the community. The residents here are not just residents. Many of them are friends. So I stay here. I love the place. I love Brooklyn. I want to see this community thrive.

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