It all started with a handshake.
If you’ll pardon me for getting nostalgic, this month is my 28th anniversary editing and writing for Habitat magazine. In April 1982, I was 25 and had been without a full-time job for a year or so. My first gig out of college had been at Firehouse magazine, where I learned all I ever wanted to know about the fire service industry. After two-and-a-half years on that job, I left for an editor’s slot at Americana – which started as a promising partnership and ended up a disaster. I left after six months – writing about firefighters was more my thing apparently than making rocking chairs seem interesting – and I took off for a year to write a book about the James Bond movies.
Then I got my job at Habitat. Carol Ott, the red-headed publisher of the new magazine (there had been one 16-page issue published so far) asked me point blank: “Do you know much about co-ops?”
“No,” I replied. “But I didn’t know much about firefighters when I started at Firehouse, and I knew a lot by the time I left.”
Apparently, it was a good answer. Carol gave me her book, Paradise Loft, and, the next day, hired me. We shook hands on the deal and in the 28 years since then, I have learned a lot about cooperatives and condominiums and the people who live in them. I met board members and managing agents, lawyers and accountants, contractors and engineers. I bought a co-op myself in 1987 (not just to get story ideas, though it has helped), and immediately ran for the board. I have learned the basic lessons of being a board director – communication and clarity – though I haven’t always been as adept at practicing both as I’d have liked.
I’ve written about management successes and management failures – and lived through them as well. In my own small building, we’ve had sponsor-managers who didn’t care enough, shareholder-managers who cared too much, and outside managers who fell somewhere in between. We’ve had other professionals who ran the gamut from great to ghastly.
To me, over the years, the managing agents I have met are the most fascinating of the co-op/condo professionals. I can see why lawyers, architects, and engineers do the work, but managers? If being on the board is a thankless job, what is it to be a manager? Underpaid, overworked, and (often) under-trained, the typical managing agent must be some kind of masochist. I’ll always remember one of the first agents I met: a slightly built, nervous-looking man who seemed to be obsessed with what a competitor said and did in print. When I’d call him with questions for a story, he would always ask me up front, referring to his competition: “What did Jerry say?” And after the interview had ended, he would ask: “How was that? Was that as good as Jerry’s answer?”
But what was surprising was that, despite such insecurities, he was an extremely knowledgeable man, savvy in the world of real estate but especially savvy about dealing with people. I went with him on a building job interview once and marveled at how the twitchy, Peter Lorre-like character became as smooth as Cary Grant when handling questions lobbed at him by the board president.
It’s that strange dichotomy that makes this job, this business, this lifestyle so fascinating. The bottom line: I’ve discovered that the best professionals share a common thread with the best board members – they care enough (or are crazy enough) to put up with the long hours, low pay (did he say pay?), and frequent complaints from the residents.
It’s a cliché by now that serving on the board offers no reward, but that isn’t quite true. Sure, people are protecting their investments, but it’s more than that. I remember years ago, when I asked my father if something I wanted to buy was too expensive. “Does it mean something to you?” he said. It did. “Well, then it’s not too expensive,” he answered. Being on a board – serving someone to the best of your ability – is like that. It means something to you.
And it beats cursing the darkness.