The Claridge/The Overlook, White Plains
Joe Camastra, board president
Built in 1953, the Claridge and the Overlook are two remarkable 100-unit buildings that make up one cooperative. For the last 16 years, the co-op, with an annual budget of $3 million, has been run by no-nonsense board president Joe Camastra, 75. Although he has lived there for 28 years, he didn’t get involved until his second wife (who died in 2006) moved in and urged him to serve on the board. Still, it took some convincing for the strong-willed building contractor to sign up. At the president’s request, he sat in on a board meeting after which he said, “No thanks,” asserting, “I can’t deal with this level of incompetence.” Nonetheless, he was eventually persuaded to join.
What convinced you to serve on the board?
My wife. The building wasn’t doing well, physically or financially. She said, “Why don’t you join? You could do something.” [Later, the president said to me], “I’m having a hard time.” He was a smart guy, but he just couldn’t get past the board members. They would outvote him all the time. They didn’t know one end of the business from another.
My wife said, “Joe, help him out, even if it’s for a year.” At that time, they couldn’t get a brick-pointing job started. Nobody was on the same page. They hired me to oversee the work. [The president] asked me, “Do you think you could handle this?” My exact words were, “What do you think you’ve got? The Twin Towers here? It’s only a $600,000 project. It’s not a big deal. I brought it in for about $125,000 less [than predicted].
That year, at the annual shareholders meeting, the president stood up and said, “I am now resigning. Tonight’s my last night on the board. I’d like to recommend Joe Camastra to be your board president. He knows what he’s doing. I would suggest that you vote him in.” I refused. After everybody left, the existing board members begged me [to join]. And my wife did also. I said, “I’ll give it one year.” That was the beginning of 16 years.
What did you do to change things?
I worked with the existing board for about a year, [and then] I replaced them with all my own people. I went to every apartment, spoke with each shareholder [and] told them who I was, what I had accomplished in my personal life, and what I could do for the building if I had the right people on the board. I got proxies [and put people I had chosen on the board].
How did the ousted board members feel?
They threatened to sue. I said, “You’re not going to threaten me. I’m not running away. You can sue me. But be careful about what you say because I’ll come after you, and I’ll take everything you’ve got.” I was in the construction business. I dealt with all the unions in New York. It maybe was rough going for a couple of years. But again, coming from where I came from you don’t back down.
Where did you come from? Where did you grow up?
I’m a New York City guy. I was brought up in Flushing, moved to the Bronx, [and then] to Lower Westchester. I’m just a high school graduate. I saw what could be done with my limited education. I started out with a pick and shovel in construction at 18 years old. I worked my way up from there. I worked for a contractor who taught me everything. Eventually, I ended up becoming an operator for Local 15, the engineers’ union. Then I went to Rockland County and started a land development company.
What is the accomplishment you’re most pleased about at the co-op?
We made it a very successful, desirable co-op complex. We came from nothing and we built it up. What I learned from my business was simply that what you don’t know you hire and you hire the best and you pay what you have to pay. Garthchester was managing this building for a while. They walked away because it was not well-run. When I took over, I went to [Garthchester principals] John Bonito and Jay Mendel [and] sat down with them. They didn’t know me from Adam. I simply said, “I did my research [and see] you’re one of the top management companies in this area. I’m going to build this business back up but I need help. If you don’t see any improvement [over time] or don’t feel like I’m doing the right thing, walk away.” I did that with our attorney. We have Jim Glatthaar, who’s with Bleakley Platt & Schmidt. I said, “Jim, I need help – whatever you can do to help me.” Through his good advice [and with] John Bonito’s hand on my shoulder, [as well as] a few other people, we got focused.
Our building is now physically [and] financially sound. I built a park within our building that is approximately 17,000 square feet. I have about 35 trees, three water fountains, a 7,000-square-foot deck, and a lot of things. We’re probably the only co-op building in White Plains that has a green roof. The previous boards tried it and failed. We built it.
We’re a co-op community. By building this park, people come out and they get to know their neighbors. We also do a yearly barbecue party at the end of June. We invite all the people we do business with during the course of the year because I believe in PR. You’ve got to sell.
What advice would you give to other boards?
Use common sense. I run this co-op with common sense. If it makes sense, then it works. Only go forward. Don’t go back and don’t stand still.