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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Mother Courage

At an age when most people are retiring, Anne Sullivan will not fade away – and is shaking up her board

and her building.

 

Anne Sullivan has had a busy six months. Last June, after being elected president of Gerard Towers, the 560-unit Forest Hills co-op in which she lives, she began a massive overhaul of the board and its operations. With the approval of her fellow directors, she set up a committee system to deal with a long-standing problem: much-needed projects weren’t getting done because the secretive board and the disenchanted shareholders were at loggerheads.

Sullivan thought a committee system would help because it would bring in those outside and make the system more open to everyone. She personally chose committee chairs by directly phoning shareholders that she knew had the right experience. She then made a point of sitting in on the first meeting of each committee to ensure they got off the ground properly. On another front, she supervised a review of the house rules
and got the board to rough out some new policies: no dogs in the lobby during the day and no shopping carts ever (they have to be brought in through the side entrance). It doesn’t please everybody but Sullivan doesn’t care, noting in her best tough-love manner: “We’re still getting complaints, but it’ll work after a while. You just have to keep telling them it’s a danger; and it is.”

At an age when most people are reflecting on past glories – or are simply happy to be able to reflect at all – Anne Sullivan, 94, is still moving at warp speed. But Sullivan has been a dynamo for as long as anyone can remember: in her eighties, when she was running her own travel agency, she was elected president of the 1,500-strong New York chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents, and then, two years later, she was elected national director.

 

Travel Woman

She was born in Brooklyn, the only child of German immigrants, and, in 1936, she married a nightclub singer, Lee Sullivan, who later became a Broadway star. “Our picture was on the cover of Life magazine. He was a wonderful man and we had a great life,” she says. They had two sons, and, in 1971, she went into the travel agency business with one of them. They had some of the biggest names in the rock music world as their clients – and often that meant handling not just the travel arrangements but the clean-up afterwards. When one band returned the rental car she had booked for them, the car rental company complained that the top of the car’s roof had been shot full of bullet holes. Her deadpan response: “It’s your own fault. I told you they needed a convertible!” (Nonetheless, she did make sure that the band paid for the damage.)

Using dry humor to deal with people was her forte. “I had one woman who insisted I get her an ocean-view room in Las Vegas” – the same Las Vegas that is in the middle of the desert! “You put them on hold for a minute, kick your desk, and then go back and talk to them: ‘We have a pool [in the building]. The woman complains that the kids splash. I say, ‘That’s what a pool is for.’ ‘Well, I just had my hair done.’ So I say, ‘Then don’t go to the pool.’”

After her husband died some 20 years ago, her sons persuaded her to move into her present apartment. “They wanted me to be in a building with a doorman and a 24-hour garage because I was doing a great deal of traveling for the business.” After living in a house all her life, she didn’t think she would ever get used to apartment living. But her sons said: “Look at it as a hotel,” and that worked for her. “The service was wonderful – it still is.”

 

Co-op Concerns

In July 2007, just a month after she had been elected board president, “she thought that what she set out to do should have been accomplished already,” reports Lorraine Haufmann, administrative assistant in the resident manager’s office. It didn’t get done in a month, but, by January of 2008, her initial projects had been finished: a quarter-of-a-million-dollar façade job; a dedicated in-house TV channel; and a seven percent maintenance increase. That last one wasn’t popular, but the treasurer advised it, and Sullivan pushed it through. Tony Pellosie, the resident manager, adds that Sullivan’s belief in getting things done by directly approaching people rather than using form letters and red tape has almost eliminated maintenance arrears. She now has a month-by-month “to-do” calendar for the year.

“She’s a ball of fire,” says the co-op’s longtime attorney, Bruce Cholst, a partner at Rosen & Livingston. That isn’t immediately apparent, however, when you see the slight, somewhat frail-looking woman (who has had a hip replacement and knee surgery) walking slowly through the building’s long corridors steadying herself with a walker. But she has the coifure and clothes of an elegant lady-about-town, and Pellosie reports that she is loved by almost everyone in the building.

Sullivan talks in a deep, throaty voice with a slight lisp that makes you lean in every now and then to catch a word. She insists that nothing worries her because she’s “not going to be here that long.” Still, she does her share of worrying. “I picked up the phone at 1:45 A.M. and started to dial your number,” she tells Pellosie. “I wanted to ask whether the new people we screened were aware of the maintenance increase – not realizing what time it was.” She guffaws: “I said [to myself], ‘What, are you crazy?’”

Four years ago, one of her sons died suddenly of an aneurism. She speaks about it rarely. “I don’t think you ever get over it. It’s there every single day, at some time. You just have to steel yourself and go on. I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did and I’ve learned to accept what I cannot change.”

When things can be changed, there is no one fiercer than Sullivan: “Most people who live in co-ops have lived in apartments their whole lives, so they really have a landlord complex: if you don’t like it, let somebody fix it. They don’t realize they are the owners, they are the landlords, and I find they are rather demanding. How do I deal with that? I just tell them, ‘It’s your house.’”

Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso Inc., the co-op’s management firm, sums up: “She’s gotten that whole building on a course now where things are really running well.”

He sees her as something of a phenomenon: “I had a luncheon meeting with her and the board treasurer. We’re both much younger than she is. We both order a sparkling water; she orders a vodka and soda. I order broiled scallops with a side of vegetables. She says: ‘I’ll have the same thing, but I want them fried – and a side of French fries.’”

Sullivan doesn’t see anything odd in that picture: “My philosophy is everything in moderation – even moderation.”

With all the work that has been undertaken in the past few months, she’s very clear about what she considers her most important accomplishments. “The joining together of people. Oh, and one other thing – that I got up this morning.”

 

HABITAT SIDEBAR

 

Libertaran at Large

 

Eighty-nine-year-old Howard Gellman, a retired attorney, board director, and three-time past president of his 66-unit co-op in Jackson Heights, Queens, is one of those building heroes without whose activities shareholders might have lost everything. Many who bought into the original co-op have moved on and been replaced by families with young children and no memory of the bad times; but no detail of the building’s roller-coaster history is lost from Gellman’s memory.

When he first served as president in the 1980s, co-ops everywhere were defaulting, and, for many boards, the main concern was to try and pull their fellow shareholders back from the brink of bankruptcy. Gellman discovered that the sponsor hadn’t been paying the mortgage payments and the bank was threatening to foreclose. Negotiations went on for months. Then, one day, he and a board colleague decided it was enough. “I said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve been making the mortgage payments for a number of months and we’re not going to do it anymore. The bank said, ‘We’ll foreclose.’ And we said, ‘Fine, we’ll bring a petition for bankruptcy, and we’ll all have fun.’ The banks didn’t like bankruptcy petitions. They didn’t want to take over the building. So we both sat there and stared at each other for a while, and, finally, they said, ‘Alright.’”

At that point, Gellman felt things were under control and he resigned. Then, someone was badly injured in the basement. The sponsor had the president’s seat at that time; he phoned Gellman for advice. “I said, speak to the insurance company. He phoned me back and said the management company hadn’t paid the premiums for months. The co-op had no insurance!” Eventually, that too was settled. Gellman was persuaded to take over again as president soon after.

His advice to board presidents? “Be less businesslike. I think there’s too much concentration on running the co-op as a business. I don’t say you should be careless. But I think you can be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and the concentration on strict business notions just doesn’t go with the idea of a cooperative venture…Hours are spent worrying about how much to charge for renting [storage space] or what kind of penalty to impose if the weather is good and he decides he can have his party in the backyard without paying anything. It happens. So let it go. It annoys the life out of me. I’m not a great believer in rules and regulations if things are going pretty well.”

The board disagrees with him, but Gellman is philosophical: “I take a much more lenient approach. People should be content. There should be as few onerous rules passed as possible.”

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