Growing up in the tiny town of Minocqua in the northern reaches of Wisconsin, Liz Serwin dreamed of a career in fashion. And that dream meant one thing: she knew she had to get to New York City. After earning a history degree from the University of Minnesota, she made it to New York in 2004, where she studied fashion design at Parsons School of Design and embarked on a freelance career as a still-life stylist that would prove to be a surprisingly ideal preparation for her current role as secretary of her Brooklyn co-op board.
“My profession is so outside the norm, I didn’t know if I would have the right skills to bring to the board,” says Serwin, 44, who began renting an apartment in the Berkley Square co-op in Prospect Park South in 2006, after she’d graduated from Parsons. The profession of a still-life stylist involves photographing fashion products amid props – in Serwin’s case, mostly cosmetics, clothing, shoes and accessories. She likens the job to set design, and it requires hustle, discipline and an ability to meet deadlines. Five years after she moved into the 84-unit prewar building, the co-op board, hoping to increase owner-occupancy, offered to sell her the apartment. She took the plunge, and soon she was being wooed to join the five-member board.
“I was too intimidated at first,” Serwin says, “and way too busy with my work.”
But in 2017 she relented and agreed to serve. “I guess I’d changed,” she says, noting that she had gut-renovated her bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, redone the floors, putting her personal stamp on her home, where she lives alone. “I found I welcomed the challenge of being on the board. My first year I sat back and listened. My second year I became secretary, and I began to understand that what I do for a living actually helped. In my work, everything happens on a deadline, and it has to be on budget. So I’m very good at reacting when a problem arises and at completing tasks. And I’m really big on transparency and communication with the people in the building.”
As a renter-turned-shareholder, she found herself in a unique position to serve as a bridge between these two constituencies. “One of the problems I saw when I first came on the board was communication – how to notify the building as a whole,” she says. “I suggested we bring in BuildingLink, and our new super was also a proponent. Before, there was no record of work requests.”
Serwin got involved in interviewing candidates for the super’s job with Jonathan Fox, the board treasurer, who worked on developing a structured interview process, which is now used in hiring other building staffers as well as vetting potential renters and buyers. Serwin was also instrumental in hiring J&L Landscaping to tend to the building’s treasured backyard.
Ahead of the Curve
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring, Serwin pushed for an aggressive response. “I’ve been adamant about cleaning protocols,” she says, “and letting the staff know it was OK to stay home if they thought they might be sick.” She also pushed for mandatory rules on mask-wearing and for banning guests from the backyard and all loitering in the lobby. But the board demurred, instead announcing that it “strongly encouraged” such measures. When the second wave of the pandemic began to build late last summer, the rest of the board came around to Serwin’s way of thinking. “People,” she says, “have been awesome about complying.”
The board decided to hold last year’s annual meeting virtually on Zoom. As secretary, Serwin monitored the Q&A session, which went smoothly. “The board went through our list of achievements for the year,” she says. “I thought it was a great success. We actually ended earlier than in past years, and we had good attendance.”
Now she and her fellow board members are turning to the next challenge, and it promises to be a beast. “I’ve been pushing for new elevators from the beginning,” Serwin says. “They’re getting dodgy, and residents have gotten stuck, so now we’re getting ready to modernize both elevators. We’ve hired Sierra Consulting Group, and they’ve helped us solicit bids and break them down. We just hired Genco Elevator to do the work.”
Serwin has been a board director long enough to know that the elevator job is not going to be a day at the beach. But looking back at the changes since she joined the board – BuildingLink, the new gardener, the new super, the structured interviews, the successful virtual annual meeting – she feels ready for this new challenge. “It’s going to be a nightmare,” she says, “but my goal is to do whatever we can to make it less painful.”