New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Leadership: 4 Portraits

John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” To effectively steer a co-op.condo board through the labyrinth world of today’s professional and personal issues takes fortitude, vision, and dedication. Experts say that leadership is about taking charge and building consensus. “Great leaders are excellent at creating a vision and strategy, and at motivating their troops toward fulfilling that vision into tangible realities,” says Lars G. Harrison, a Raleigh, N.C.-based consultant who specializes in leadership issues. “Leaders have the qualities needed to achieve great results.” A successful board president must know how to handle the good and the bad, including irate shareholders and dissenting board members, while providing the leadership necessary to run a smooth day-to-day operation. The four co-op presidents described here have shown that they have the “right stuff” – and, because of that, have significantly improved the communities in which they live.

HARRY MAYER: The Team Player
Board President, Park City Estates, Rego Park, N.Y.
Co-op 1,049 units
It had to come down. Like the walls of Jericho, serious water damage to the underground garage at Park City Estates, a five-building complex in Queens, meant that the roof had to be demolished. A potential problem? The roof also doubled as a 152,000 square-foot ground level rotunda in the front of the complex with roadways, walkways, paths, and gardens. To make matters worse, an illegal renovation in an apartment pierced a gas line, shutting down the building just before Thanksgiving, and cost $750,000 to repair. Soon afterwards, a Con Ed street fire blew out the entire electrical box of another building, while an accidental garage roof collapse crushed 24 cars.

The shareholders were in an uproar. “We had to deal with all the shareholders whose cars were crushed and provide them with temporary transportation and also had to deal with the host of insurance companies who next insured these vehicles,” says Charles M. Zsebedics, general manager of Park City Estates.

Crisis can bring out the best or the worst in a person. Luckily for Park City Estates, it had the best: Harry Mayer. As a board member of his co-op in Rego Park Queens since 1998 and the board president since 2000, Mayer admits he has “seen everything” while serving a property where three generations of his family reside.

The rotunda crisis began in 2002, when the board determined that repairing dangerous water damage to the underground garage and preventing further damage meant extensive roof repair. “Some agreed we had to do this but the majority did not,” says Mayer who was besieged with questions regarding the necessity of the project. However difficult it was for all residents, Mayer, who is director of technical services for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, knew the action was necessary. “We had no choice. This was a mandatory repair for everyone’s safety and so we just did it.”

Outside financing from NCB was obtained for the $8 million project, which also included renovating the five building’s lobbies for handicap accessibility, and rebuilding staircases. Work also included repairs on all the buildings for Local Law 11/98 and the rebuilding of the exterior staircases leading up to the rotunda. “Everything that hadn’t been done in 40 years, we did,” says Mayer. Zsebedics adds that, although the project was “more ambitious than any board in New York City would want to tackle,” Mayer knew how to make the tough choices. “He is able to speak to people and relate to them on a personal level. He has sound judgment, common sense, and is extremely wise. He combines compassion, empathy, and patience with a unique toughness.”

Mayer needed that toughness to successfully lead the board through the tangle of financing, massive construction schedules, freakish accidents, and insurance claims while still keeping the co-op functioning on a daily basis. Once construction began, the co-op “looked like it had been blown up in a war,” says Mayer, who worked overtime to soothe the fears of anxious residents. “Harry was able to lead the board, and these residents, through an extremely difficult time,” notes Zsebedics. “Aside from a crane collapse or a plane crashing into a building, most co-ops do not experience this sort of thing. He exudes confidence without being pretentious. He doesn’t micromanage.” Explains Mayer: “You have to know when to pull in the ropes and when to let go.”

But Mayer says it hasn’t all been about him, that the board and management staff are united as a team committed to bringing stability back to the co-op. Yet it was Mayer who insisted on answering questions and giving face-to-face assurances with any and all shareholders. Believing that communication is the key to harmony, he also saw to it that the co-op put out daily newsletters that kept everyone informed of the various projects underway.

“You may be the leader, but you have to have an open mind and listen to everyone’s opinion, good and bad,” he observes, adding that his board “may have heated discussions but we come up with answers.” The board members physically meet once a month, but they communicate more often than that, taking advantage of e-mail and the telephone to conduct business on a daily basis. “This way nothing gets held back and delayed. Everything is constantly moving. We found that more effective. Without team effort, you have nothing.”

Observes Zsebedics: “Harry Mayer helped fight our insurance company to pay the $2.3 million-dollar loss we sustained and it took a year and a half to rebuild the garage roof and another six months to put back the rotunda into operating condition. Harry Mayer was instrumental in keeping the cooperative running despite the hundreds of roadblocks these projects presented.”

ROSEANNE KING-LIND: The Hard Driver
Board President, Ryerson Towers, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Mitchell-Lama Co-op 326 units
Roseanne King-Lind understands how to get a job done. And her Brooklyn building had serious work that needed to be handled – pronto. In 2005, with her co-op sinking deeply into debt, King-Lind decided to run for the board. She was elected and when she received her first financial statement, she was appalled. “The co-op was in debt over $500,000 that year with no capital expenditures. Where did the money go?”

The take-charge King-Lind wasn’t about to roll over. Determined to stem the tide of financial neglect, she encouraged several shareholders, including an accountant, to run for the nine-member board. With a majority of new members in place, she was tapped as president in 2006. The accountant promptly became the new treasurer, and they immediately went to work cleaning house. “We reduced the co-op insurance by 12 to 15 percent, hired a new attorney, decreased the staff overtime in the building, researched new contractors, and lowered all expenses.”

Steve Wagner, a partner at Wagner Davis and the co-op’s new attorney, points out King-Lind’s greatest strengths: “She stays focused on the goals of the co-op and makes the best decisions she can after thoroughly educating herself. She appreciates people and knows how to treat them, friend or foe.”

Her background certainly helps: as a sales representative with a million-dollar clientele for Valentino at Saks Fifth Avenue and a former property manager for AKAM Associates, she is knowledgeable about real estate and “very pro-active and business-oriented,” she notes, adding: “Whatever is in the best interest of the shareholders, that will be our decision. When we put ourselves second and think of the shareholders first, everything falls into place.”

After two years, the finances for the co-op are “almost in the black,” she reports. The co-op has received a $3.5 million loan from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to help fund a current $3.6 million improvement project that includes new windows, roof repair, a new boiler, and balcony restoration. She was also successful in receiving a grant for $500,000 from a local councilwoman towards the project. Meanwhile, Keyspan is providing a $50,000 incentive for installing a new dual gas/oil boiler in the building.

Of the nine board members, five tend to vote in her favor, but it doesn’t always go her way. “You have to be open-minded and give everyone the chance to express their views. You may not enjoy it, but that is all part of leadership.” According to Wagner, she has a gift for putting together coalitions against strong opposition, which, the lawyer says, has allowed her to “implement capital projects and do it cost-effectively and eliminate the murky financial dealings that came before her.”

The board now communicates with shareholders on a regular basis by distributing the meeting minutes, something unheard of before her tenure. However, she has learned that trying to please everybody is impossible. She believes that if you please yourself and the majority, “you will succeed.” As to her management style, she says: “I don’t micromanage. I let everyone do their job. You have to trust who you are working with.” She adds: “I love challenges, life is too boring without them.”

 

TOM VAN BUSKIRK: The Politician
Board President, Flowerview Gardens, Floral Park, N.Y.
Co-op 287 units
Tom Van Buskirk, newly arrived at the 287-unit Flowerview Gardens cooperative in Floral Park, didn’t like what he saw. “It seemed like the management company was running the co-op.” And they weren’t doing it that well: the board appeared dysfunctional, management was spending money without supervision, the co-op was physically in disrepair, and the residents – a mixed bag of senior citizens, blue collar workers, and yuppies – were restless and unhappy.

Van Buskirk, only 27, is a former firefighter and immediately put his rescue skills to work. He campaigned for president early in his tenure and was lucky or persuasive – or a little bit of both – and was elected, partly because no one wanted the job: other board members, who serve two-year terms, either moved or resigned in his first year. He quickly pursued and persuaded qualified new members to fill the six-person board and was particularly pleased to convince a financial expert to sign up. “He was a huge help,” Van Buskirk notes. “We had major financial problems and there was no accounting for how money was spent.” With his colleague’s blessing, he changed management companies and put caps on spending. Now, any expenditure higher than $1,500 must have board approval and anything over $700 requires an approval in writing. He also made them bring back an on-site super, a post which had been, in Van Buskirk’s view, wrongly eliminated.

“Tom is a remarkable politician,” says Peter Lehr, director of management at Kaled, the current manager. “He has managed to make a dysfunctional board function, and he is very adept at handling the needs of the property’s varied population.”

Van Buskirk likes working with people, and does so every day at his job as a senior instructor for the training department at Cablevision. In his three years at Flowerview and on the board, he has successfully turned around a dangerous disconnect between the board, management, and shareholders, plus steered the complex through major capital improvements.

Indeed: his politicking, accessibility, and rapport were welcomed by the majority of shareholders and it soon became much easier to proceed with an extensive $2 million brick-refacing project that had been initiated by the previous board.

“He handled it like a seasoned pro,” recalls Lehr. “He put himself out there, which I think is the most important aspect of a leader. He is on the front lines and knows what is going on in the property.” The job took 2 ½ years to complete throughout the 27-building complex. “Every single building was touched,” says Van Buskirk. “In some cases entire walls were replaced. We did this all with a minimum of impact to our shareholders.”

He also negotiated a deal with Verizon, which paid the co-op a hefty sum to install Fios cable on the grounds. He convinced the board to use the money to turn 3,400 square feet of concrete into a park. This provides families with a fenced-in area for children to play, and twice-a-year the board hosts a community party there.

Although there is no tie-breaker with a six-person board, Van Buskirk says that disagreements do not lead to heated arguments. “Everyone listens to everyone else and we make informed decisions as to what’s good for the co-op.” Still, he admits there are times when he feels he has to force the board in a certain direction. “The trick is to be tactful. You have to be able to justify why you put your foot down. A good leader only shuts someone down if they have just cause.”

The complex attracts young families who are not looking for maintenance increases but are interested in going green with energy usage. “Our biggest challenge now are energy costs,” he says, noting that the board is saving money by replacing such equipment as boilers and thermostats with more efficient models as the old ones break down. The co-op has consequently cut its energy bills significantly, which all residents, regardless of demographics, appreciate.

According to Lehr, Van Buskirk brought back a sense of trust between the board and the community, something that is essential to protect a co-op’s quality of life and investment. “Before him, there was no trust,” notes the manager. When he walks through the complex today, however, Lehr hears from residents who are happy because they are on a good financial path, primarily because of Van Buskirk’s ability to connect and communicate. “People take to Tom quickly. He knows the right thing to say at the right time and makes people feel good about themselves.”

Van Buskirk credits strategic thinking and good people skills as prerequisites for a successful leader. “You have to be able to lay out a plan and see the long term. You have to be open, willing to communicate and admit when something is wrong. You speak to each group and tell them how your plan will benefit them. You can’t please everybody but you can try as hard as you can.”

 

MARSHA HUNTER: The Commander-in-Chief
Board President/Managing Agent
123 West 74th Street, New York, N.Y.
Co-op 40 units
it was every building’s worst nightmare. The superintendent – the captain of the ship, on whom most co-op.condos depend to keep operations running smoothly – was devastated by a stroke. It was a crisis that would test the mettle of any leader. And it tested one of the best: Marsha Hunter.

The issue was not just one of replacing the super. It was also about dealing with the personal and professional issues that went with the job. Replacement, says Arthur Weinstein, the attorney for the 40-unit Manhattan co-op, “would be easier to deal with than the ethical, moral, and political issues that the board would be facing.”

Indeed, as Weinstein notes: “The board predictably began wrestling with the hard questions. How to balance the needs of the co-op with their concerns for the well-being of the super and his family; people who had become part of the co-op’s family. Questions were debated: how long could the building safely function with a part-time super working very limited hours? How long would it take to determine whether or not the super would recover sufficiently to be able to do his job? Are the contract’s termination pay provisions fair and reflective of the years of service by the super? How long could the contract’s grievance procedures delay the ability of the co-op to hire a new full-time resident super?”

Hunter, who has been board president of her co-op since 1978 and its managing agent since 1988, did what she always does: take charge. She believes in strong management and her focus is always on the bottom line. “We are not running a tenant advocacy group here. We are running an investment of the shareholders and we are incorporated under New York State business law.”

With the union’s blessing, Hunter assured the super’s family that the full annual vacation time and sick time, whether or not it had then been earned, would be made available. She then called a meeting of the shareholders to inform them about the crisis and the steps that were being taken to deal with it, and then diplomatically dealt with groups of vocal owners who provided more heat than illumination. Weinstein says that because Hunter was “devoted” to the building and cared tremendously about it, she had the strength to deal with the disgruntled alliance. “Anytime there has been a president of a board for a long time, there are always those who resent them and look for something to complain about. This was it.”

She dealt with their complaints – and the more legitimate worries of other shareholders – by promising to have frequent board meetings to keep on top of the facts – and to offer frequent reports to the shareholders to keep them informed. A part-time employee was secured to handle emergencies while Hunter and the board worked diligently with the union and counsel to hire a new super while giving the disabled super and his family a generous severance package to secure new housing for them.

“It was a very complicated and difficult procedure,” says Hunter. “Within the board there were those swayed by the human part, but it didn’t deter them. The board knew we needed a full-time super.”

Keeping on top of the situation is nothing new for Hunter, who pays close attention to detail, stays abreast of any issues on a day-to-day basis, and admits she keeps massive documentation on “everything that ever happened in this building.” As to what she believes are her leadership assets, she says: “I don’t falter on my instincts about what is right. That might appear to be hard-nosed, but I believe in maintaining the investment of the shareholders and not becoming involved with emotional or social policy conflicts.”

She is not above stage-managing the make-up of the board. In order to do the best possible job for her fellow shareholders, she looks for the most qualified candidates to fill that seven-member body. “I seek out the best in the building – those who are willing to give the time, who have a financial, legal, or business background and are comfortable making decisions on a corporate level,” says Hunter, who adds: “I am very proud of this building and what we have done to bring a 1924 structure back to restoration.” She enjoys steering difficult projects and laughs when she admits that just getting through all the city inspections each year is am accomplishment in itself. “I like to see a job well done.”

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