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Your Property Manager Is Not a Pinata

The principal of a small management firm was sitting opposite me talking about the importance of communication between co-op/condo boards and their professionals, when his phone rang. It was as though we were in a stage play – the call was right on cue. The executive looked at the caller ID on his cell phone and made a face. “Yes, I’ll be coming by there later today,” he told the caller. “No, I haven’t. Can we talk about it when I get there? I’m in a meeting right now.”

He hung up with a sigh.

“A board member?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know,” he said.

Nonetheless, the moment fit right in with what we had been talking about – that some board members communicate too much, micromanaging their agents to a ridiculous degree, while others don’t communicate enough, feeling they know enough to run things by themselves.

This board member happened to be retired and had a lot of time on his hands, and was constantly phoning and e-mailing the manager, bombarding him with suggestions, questions, and complaints. I had an image of someone battering a piñata in a Mexican restaurant. Did the agent ever consider resigning the building? “No, never,” he said, as though I had insulted him by calling him a quitter. His father, who had started the company, used to say, “Never give up.”

Another management executive, a principal in his firm, takes a different view. “Sometimes a building is not worth the trouble,” he says. “I had a building that had me come to six meetings a month. I said, ‘This is crazy! It’s not worth it.’ They just weren’t organized. You’ve got to know what your time is worth.”

Most managers I’ve talked to recently say the job has become more time-consuming than ever before. “There are new regulations coming down from the city all the time,” says another manager. “You’ve got more filings than ever before, and you’ve got to keep on top of them.”

Everyone agrees that technology is both a help and a hindrance in running buildings. On the one hand, it helps managers keep in touch with their boards 24/7. On the other hand, managers never get a respite.

“Because they have immediate access, they expect to get you by cell phone, e-mail, or text right away, and they become frustrated when they don’t reach you,” says the president of a 30-year-old management company. He recalls one evening when he actually arrived a half-hour early for a board meeting. How did he kill the time? Going through and answering more than 200 e-mails from his boards.

And what about meetings? “When you’re a property manager, the first rule of any meeting is to get out with your ass intact,” says one longtime property manager. “When you attend an annual shareholders’ meeting, then there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s all emotional. A lot of times, because you’re the management company, you’re going to get attacked, but all we’re really doing is just instituting policy. Of course, we’re the bad guy. Of course, we didn’t manage properly. Of course, we didn’t do this correctly. It’s a tough spot to be in.”

Is it any wonder that most managers report that it’s difficult to find new agents? “Who would want to take the abuse?” asks one executive of a mid-sized firm. “I’ve rarely heard of people in college saying, ‘That’s the job I want! I want to be a managing agent!’ It just doesn’t happen.”

Most managers say they want to have a “partnership” with their boards, and the best boards don’t just order their managers around – they look on them as professional advisers. In short, it’s better to use – not abuse – managing agents. They usually have skills that will make your life easier.

Veteran board members agree that being on the board, working many hours without pay, is a thankless job. So have a little sympathy and understanding for the equally thankless job of being a manager. Treat him or her like a person, not a piñata. You might actually create a more effective relationship. And wouldn’t that be sweet?

(Because they were speaking critically of their clients, all the managers quoted in this story requested anonymity.)

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