New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Letting Go

When Marleen Levi was elected president of the board of her 75-unit co-op in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, she fit in perfectly. Not only had she played a central role in wresting control of the building from a nefarious sponsor, her professional skills from working in the financial-services industry were useful for overseeing the building. “I felt I just needed to step into that role,” she says. “It just seemed like a natural transition.”

That was more than 20 years ago. Every two years since then, like clockwork, Levi has been re-elected to the board and the presidency. “I just became very, very involved in the running of the co-op,” she says. “Quite frankly, there weren’t many people who wanted to step up and do this.” Today, Levi is considering how and when she’ll step down from the board. “I’m not saying I’m resigning tomorrow,” she says. “But I will say it is becoming a little taxing and wearing on some level.”

There’s just one problem: Levi doesn’t have an obvious replacement, and she’s not about to leave the job in just anyone’s hands. “I’m protecting my own investment,” she says.

Levi has plenty of company. “There comes a time with many, many long-term people on boards that they want to step down, and they feel very strongly that there’s no one to replace them,” says real estate lawyer Theresa Racht, a partner at Racht & Taffae. Take the example of a longtime Queens condo board president who prefers not to be identified. “I’m afraid if I step down, if I walk away, then things just won’t happen,” she says. “And if things don’t get done, our property values are only going to decrease.”

Certainly not everyone is qualified to be a board president. But with rare exceptions, say managers and lawyers who work with co-ops and condos, no director is irreplaceable. “I would argue that the talent has to be there – unless it’s a truly tiny building,” says Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC). Adds Racht: “The truth is, there is someone. They may not run the place the same way you did. You just have to bring those people along.” Doing so involves a combination of recruitment, training, and long-term planning.

Levi agrees. “I’ve been able to groom people along so they can take some of the responsibility,” she says. “I would love to groom a successor to be able to take over the reins somewhere in the future.”

The culture of a given building may not foster participation. The Brooklyn board president finds that many residents in her building have what she calls a “renter mentality.” “They don’t understand that they own something, and they think the condo should be doing everything for them, from soup to nuts,” she says. “They don’t understand the need for replacing a roof or putting in new hot water heaters, and they don’t understand they have to pay for that.” Before finding people to groom for board slots, she says, she must work on educating residents “to understand that they own and don’t rent, which is not an easy thing to do.”


A Benevolent Autocrat

Losing an experienced board president can be a major loss to a building. “People get on the board, become president, and then get seasoned as the years go by,” says Gerard J. Picaso, president of a management company that bears his name. “They just learn more – the best ways to communicate, to run meetings, how to work with a managing agent, an accountant, attorneys. You can work with them well; they know what they’re doing.”

Still, one of the strengths of an effective board president is knowing that he or she can’t do it all – and can’t last forever. “The dangerous thing in any co-op is if the president assumes too much control,” says real estate lawyer Alvin Schein, a partner at Seiden & Schein, who was board president at the co-op 51 West 81st Street for 21 years, stepping down in 2010. “When that happens, you have an autocrat, hopefully a benevolent autocrat, but then the president has all the knowledge and makes himself or herself irreplaceable.”

Good succession planning can start as early as the election schedule. Racht recommends staggering board terms, which is not the norm in most buildings. “It means that at no given time do you have a whole board up for election in a given year,” she says. “It takes a board member up to a year to get up to speed in a given building. The worst thing you can do is have an entirely new board.”

Then there is the admissions process, when the committee has an opportunity to identify the ways in which new shareholders might serve the building. Many professionals suggest that they serve on committees, which can be a powerful way to involve people in the running of a building. Picaso calls committee service a useful “rite of passage” to prime people for the board. “A current president who wants to leave is looking at those committee people with the idea that some of them might be good enough to become board president.”

That’s how it has worked at 720-730 Fort Washington Avenue in the Hudson Heights area of Washington Heights, says board president George Karpodinis, who has been on the board for nine years and has served as president for seven and a half years. The committees for the two-building co-op focus on subjects ranging from research to maintenance to the gym. “Committees are a really good way for someone you think might be a good board member – especially if they’re not ready to run now – to get a taste of what it’s like,” says Karpodinis. “The other side of the coin is you get to see how they interact with people; one of the values of the committee is that you get the opportunity to see somebody working in a group setting.”

As Karpodinis thinks about stepping down himself in the next year or two, he is looking for a replacement who has “intelligence, integrity, and commitment to the co-op,” and also someone who can communicate well and handle criticism. “We’ve got 234 apartments,” he says. “Not everyone is going to be happy with every decision; you’ve got to accept that criticism comes with the territory. As president, you catch a lot of heat. You really do.”

An intermediate step from committees to the board, says Racht, can be an appointment as an assistant officer, such as an assistant secretary or assistant treasurer. Most co-ops, she says, appoint corporate counsel or managing agents as assistant secretaries. Non-director shareholders can also fill those posts, although they can’t vote. “This is a way to give people responsibility and see how they deal with it, to groom a successor,” she says.


Spreading Responsibility

Once a new board member is installed, the president can make sure that person shoulders some significant responsibility. “Obviously, a president who truly doesn’t want to be president for life needs to involve other board members in the job of running the building,” says CNYC’s Rothman.

That was part of the strategy of Schein when he was president of 51 West 81st Street. “I would never make any decisions entirely on my own,” he says. “I always involved a committee if not the full board. I think that helped the transition.”

Schein also recommends long-term planning and keeping good records. “We did things not just by the seat of the pants but tried to write memos and plans about our thought process, and not just have an institutional memory,” he says. He drafted a 10-year plan for the co-op, involved the board in editing it, and distributed the edited version to shareholders. In his law practice, he has observed that problems come when presidents store information only in their own heads. “I would encourage boards to memorialize plans as much as possible and to share power,” he says.

Levi, the longtime Brooklyn president, gives the same advice. “Do reach out to other board members to delegate some responsibility,” she says. “I did over the years cultivate other board members. For example, I have a treasurer in place who reviews incoming invoices. I’ll know about it, but I don’t have to do it myself. I’ve also cultivated the admissions committee.”

But still, for now, she’s the building’s board president of choice. “People have actually said to me, ‘If you ever move out, you have to tell me, because I don’t want to be here if you’re not president,’” she says.

When she steps down, however, she doesn’t have to disappear. “Nothing says a board president has to groom a successor and then run away,” says Rothman. “The former president can and probably should stay on as a board member and maybe take on one of the more difficult committees.”

Also, says Picaso, it may help to remember that the building is paying professionals to help run the building. “The managing agent, the accountant, the attorney: all of those are there as part of the team.”

But letting go is still hard to do. One board president, who had served for over two decades, complained at a CNYC seminar: “They won’t let me step down. No one will run for office. I just have to stay.” Yet, one suspects the dilemma gave her a secret pleasure, of sorts. After all, it’s nice to be missed, isn’t it?

Subscriber Login

Ask the Experts

learn more

Learn all the basics of NYC co-op and condo management, with straight talk from heavy hitters in the field of co-op or condo apartments

Professionals in some of the key fields of co-op and condo board governance and building management answer common questions in their areas of expertise

Source Guide

see the guide

Looking for a vendor?