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The Man with the Easy Laugh

Stephen Rappaport, Board President

The Americana

Bayside, Queens

Stephen Rappaport, board president of the Americana, a Bayside, Queens, cooperative, laughs an easy laugh – one of a man who has been in leadership for many of his 71 years and has learned to take it easy.

“When you’re a leader, you can’t take things personally because you’re wearing a professional persona,” he says. “If someone gets upset with me, they’re getting upset not with me but with the president of the board. It’s not personal. It’s the position they either respect or disrespect – not the individual.” His board, Rappaport says, is “proactive and not reactive. We do things before we have to, because it always costs more when you react to a problem than when you anticipate a problem.”

The board learned this lesson the hard way. In 2008, oil from the building’s leaky underground tank seeped into the soil, causing $400,000 in damage (see “Extraordinary Payback,” Habitat, September 2012). The board, under previous president Flora Langer, subsequently turned away from oil and invested in cogeneration. It installed a natural gas-fueled power plant to generate electricity and heat for the building. When the new system began operating in 2011, the Americana’s electric bill plummeted from $60,000 to $15,000 a month.

The current board, overseen by the easygoing Rappaport, has learned to be open to creative solutions. “They had a contested election recently,” says the co-op’s attorney, Abbey Goldstein, a partner in Goldstein & Greenlaw. “The question was: do they allow the shareholders who felt disgruntled to review the ballots? Everyone thinks of ballots as being secret. How do you reconcile secret ballots with the right of shareholders in a close race to see if the votes were counted fairly?”

The answer, says Rappaport, was to cut off the tops of the ballots, which featured the identifying details. The aggrieved shareholders “went through [the results] ballot by ballot” for two recounts. “You have to be honest and transparent,” he observes.

That’s optimum, of course, but unfortunately not always true on volunteer boards composed of people of varying professional experience and temperament. But it’s an ideal to strive toward, and one that worked well for Rappaport in the tough world of New York City public schools, where he worked his way up from teacher to assistant principal to, ultimately, principal of what is now Junior High School 125 in the Bronx. Since retiring, he has been a consultant at McGraw-Hill, Pearson Publishing, and the nonprofit Center for Educational Innovation.

Rappaport, a Brooklyn native, moved into the 290-unit Americana 36 years ago and has served on the co-op board for a decade. Now in his second year as president, he brings skills to the job that he learned as a school principal. “Principals set the budget for schools,” he says, “and that helps me as president of the board manage budgets.” Rappaport has other talents. During a 10-year break in his educational career, he ran is own Crown Trophy franchise, supplying schools with trophies and awards and honing other skills. “You have to plan short-range and long-range,” he says of running a business. “You have to know how to deal with people: customers, suppliers, employees.” You also have to know when to ask for help. “I rely on Abbey Goldstein for advice, on Metro Management for advice, and on our on-site manager, Carl Caridi,” he says.

But, for Rappaport, the best thing about his building has nothing to do with his board duties. It’s personal. A few years ago, this lifelong bachelor met a neighbor in the gym. They hit it off. The result? “This May, we’ll have been married five years,” he says. “The building gave me my wife.”

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