Gandolfo (“Dolf”) Ferucci has served on the board of the 66-unit Smith Street Gardens in Freeport, Long Island, since the mid-1980s. He moved into the 56-year-old building around 1982, and bought in as an insider when the building went cooperative in 1986. The apartments have very large rooms, he notes, and most residents are elderly and middle-income. Here, talking with Habitat associate editor Aparna Narayanan, the board veteran discusses lessons learned over 25 years.
What is the hardest decision you’ve faced on the board?
Close to 15 years ago, when the market was really bad, we developed what was called subleasing guidelines. You could only rent for three years, but then you had to either sell or move back for two years in order to reapply to sublease. There was a couple [whose] three-year period of time ran out. They begged us, “Please let us continue to rent, we can’t sell, we live in Pennsylvania.” But, unfortunately, we had to have this couple end their lease. That was horrendous, to have to give someone terrible hardship. That period of time was very difficult.
What are your strengths as a board member?
I like being involved in projects – whether it will be brick pointing, or putting on a new roof. I am very detail-oriented.
What do you regard as highly desirable qualities in a board member?
If you make a house rule, it has to be for everybody. You have to put aside your compassion and deal as a business person would in a business situation. If there is no parking there, there is no parking, and that’s the end of it.
Conversely, what are some of the least desirable traits in a board member?
Someone who doesn’t look at the broader picture: if we do this now, how will that affect us down the road?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Brooklyn until I was 17 and then my parents wanted to get me away from gangs, so they purchased a house in the suburbs. I remember the first thing I loved about Long Island was when I went to high school, you had your own locker. To me, it was wonderful – all the grass and the trees and the facilities, the sports and everything, as compared to what I had going to school in Brooklyn. I fell in love with it.
What do you do professionally and did that experience help you on the board?
I was a structural mechanic for Grumman Aircraft. So there was nothing [related], other than the fact that I was, again, this detailed person. But I didn’t use [that skill] until I moved to Freeport and the building went cooperative.
What does your family make of your board activities?
The board business has interfered with certain [family] events – if we’re in the middle of a project, for example. But it’s not like [my family is] annoyed by it; they understand.
Do you have a favorite saying or expression?
Live your dream as if it has already happened. I believe that what you put out into the universe comes back to you. If you have a dream to do something, work or live as if it has already happened.
What do you do in your spare time?
I love the opera; it’s very convenient to watch at the cineplex in Farmingdale. I live not too far from Jones Beach and like to walk on the boardwalk. I go to dinner with friends or alone even sometimes, at least twice a week.
Who inspires you?
Martin Luther King: his tenacity, his way of speaking. He woke a sleeping giant, people who were downtrodden for a very long time. And [John F.] Kennedy, who came from a wealthy family and had the kind of compassion he did for working families. Probably Franklin Roosevelt too, a very brave man to overcome his disability and become a world leader and bring us through the second World War.
Describe yourself in one or two words.
Detailed, yes. Hospitable; I like entertaining people.
As a board member, how do you balance empathy for your fellow residents with making hard choices for the corporation?
You always have to keep in mind what’s best for the building as a whole, for the common good, as opposed to individual good.
Are you ready to call it a day?
I’ve been doing this a long time, it’s part of my life, it becomes ingrained in you. I think the worst part about being on a board of directors is you can’t get out. As long as I live here, I just can’t not participate.
Josette Cerasuola has lived at the 57-unit co-op at 150 East 27th Street in Manhattan since before it went co-op in 1979. She began her long service on the board in 1992. The six-story building opened its doors in 1960, consisting mostly of studios and one-bedrooms (many now combined into larger spaces). She recently talked with Habitat editorial director Tom Soter.
Why did you become president?
Nobody else wanted the position and I strongly suggested that one of the board members who is a lawyer take it, but he wanted the treasury position, so I became president by default. I strongly believe that everybody who owns a co-op should serve on the board one time or another because you really learn what it’s all about.
What qualities do you think are important in board members?
Patience and being a good listener. Because everything in a co-op takes forever to get done. Right now, we are trying to decide whether we should change our water system, how the water gets circulated through the building. Two of us on the board are ready to go, we think it’s a great idea, spend the money, let’s get it done, move the building into the 21st century, and two of the other board members, one in particular who is very concerned about spending the money and what it’s all going to mean, [says,] “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Did you always have an interest in serving on your board?
No, I didn’t. Actually it wasn’t until 1992 that things in the building were going kind of weird that a few of us decided we should run for the board.
How do you handle the tricky balance around empathy? You have to care about the people but you also have to make hard choices.
It’s not easy. In the beginning, I was very sensitive to people making comments against me. I took it very personally. But then over the years, I realized this is a corporation; not only does a corporation have to be run, but you have to take everybody into consideration because we are all part of this corporation.
What are your thoughts about co-op leadership?
You have to know your strengths. I kind of learned over the years how to deal with people and find the help if I need it because some of the other board members are stronger in other areas than I am. I have no legal background whatsoever, and I am not good with finances, and luckily, there are two people on the board: one is a lawyer and he does the finances, and one of the other board members was a mortgage broker, worked in the industry for lot of years. And they are terrific at that stuff. I am the only board member who works from home. I work very closely with the super, so I would say I put in a fair amount of time. He and I discuss the building at least once a day – what’s going on, what needs to be done, how you should proceed, do we need to involve the other board members? So, I am pretty hands-on every day.
What does your family think of your board work?
I don’t know if they fully understand what I do, but they think it’s terrific.
What do you do in your spare time?
I like to travel, go to the movies, spend time with my daughter. I just came back from London, where I go once a year. I love anything that’s different from New York. It’s great to see how other people live, although I tell you, we are all getting to be one. It’s funny. I just came back from London and I felt like I was in the middle of New York, except it’s older. It’s getting very cosmopolitan. It’s fabulous, but my English relatives are having concerns about it being so diverse. They are not used to it, so it’s harder on them.
Who is your role model, the person who inspires you the most?
My mother. Because she is a strong woman and she is very fair and she is very smart and she is a dynamo. She is a dressmaker.
Where did you grow up?
In the Bronx.
What do you do professionally?
I am a dressmaker. I have my own business and work from home. My side of the family – my mother’s side of the family – we are all artisans and craftspeople. Lots of dressmakers and cabinet-makers and furniture-makers and painters and [my 23-year-old daughter, a graphic designer who lives in Brooklyn] just followed in those footsteps from the time she was really little.
Why did you choose to live in a co-op?
I didn’t choose. It was a rental and then we were offered to buy at an insider’s rate; it was a deal we couldn’t refuse. We had a one-bedroom apartment. We bought that and several years later we bought the studio next door, and we combined the two.
What’s rewarding about being on the board?
Every year I say maybe this will be my last, but I am still on it. So, I think what’s rewarding is to actually see a building well run and to finally get things done. We all keep saying, “We will stay on just so we can finish this next project.” But there is always another project. Not very many people really want this job, so as long as I feel I can do it and do it well, I will stay on until I get voted off.
Eleanor Selling, an anthropologist by training and former trade-desk manager at J.P. Morgan Chase, has been part of the renovation committee at 5 Riverside Drive in Manhattan since 2011. The ex-board president recently sat down with Habitat’s publisher and editor-in-chief, Carol J. Ott, to discuss leadership qualities and lessons learned on the job.
What led you to join the renovation committee?
We noticed that a number of apartments were undergoing larger and more complex renovations than ever before. So the president asked me to be the liaison [for] the board, shareholders, architects, contractors, and managing agent. I recommended that we form a committee because we needed considerable expertise.
Why did the board choose you for the liaison role?
I had done shareholder outreach and customer service before, and it was well-received by both the board and the shareholders. And I volunteered.
What have you learned about leadership?
The ideal leadership is ego-less, with the focus on what needs to get done. My particular style is to lead from behind – meaning quietly.
Any leadership roles when you were younger?
I was on the board of a charity that was instrumental in bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
What feedback have you received about your leadership style over the years?
What I do best, or what is best received, is one-on-one: let’s discuss the issues in small groups and reach some consensus, get lots of points of views.
Also, as president of the co-op (from June 2009 to June/July 2010), I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work on an all-volunteer board of people who are also neighbors.
What doesn’t work?
You can’t go too fast. Somebody who goes too fast runs over people, or upsets people. And I used to go too fast.
Any unexpected lessons?
When I was president of the co-op, I had been working not only in a corporate job but also 15 to 20 hours a week for the co-op on various projects. When I stepped down, my friends expected me to feel a sense of loss, but I felt a sense of great relief. Another [lesson] was learning how to continue to serve on a board in which I had been president, and how to get things done in a quiet way rather than a leadership way.
That’s hard. How did you do it?
Well, after I stopped being the president, we had an exceptionally able man, who had been past president, volunteer to negotiate a restructuring of the officers of the board and to directly negotiate with people who had been disaffected by my leadership style. Honestly, the transition was his doing – and very gracefully accomplished.
If you could ask your managing agent only two questions this month, what would they be?
With respect to renovations, I would ask, “How can we further streamline the many touch points that a shareholder has to pass through before receiving permissions?” And I would ask him what role he could play on an ongoing basis to make the process work more smoothly.
Where were you born and raised?
Portland, Oregon. I lived there until I was in the sixth grade, when my father decided to leave for Indonesia to teach medicine.
What did you do before your recent retirement?
After I got my PhD. in anthropology at Columbia University, I went to work for Chemical Bank, which morphed into J.P. Morgan Chase. I worked there for 30 years, managing a brokerage customer service and trade-desk department.
What skills did you learn there that have proved useful in your co-op work?
To view what you are trying to do as a project. To put it together in your head almost visually, so that whatever you are trying to accomplish, you look at all aspects of it. If you make one change, you consider how it impacts another component – do you need more training, a different procedure, a different computer?
What can be frustrating about serving on a co-op board?
Actually, it’s the amount of time it takes to get “the right thing done.” It took me a year and a half to document the leaks and to persuade the board that we needed to undergo a capital improvement project to fund it.
If you could take the pulse of your building’s residents once a month, what would you look for?
I would look for ways we could improve services in the building. As a board member, I would ask if there were additional services needed – not only ones that have to be provided, but also services that people feel strongly they would use and want.
How has your doctorate in anthropology helped in all of this?
When I was on the trading floor at Chemical Bank, the director of operations said we need an anthropologist to examine primate behavior on the trading floor. So I would say that aside from knowing nothing about the business world or computers, it was a very easy transition! What you are looking for as an anthropologist is how people behave together – not psychologically, but what are the structures and what are the underlying causes of those structures? What are the patterns? What are the customs? Look at behavior, adapt to tribal customs, make the tribal customs more adaptive to the needs of the corporation.