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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Ellyn Berk

President

333 E. 66th St.

Lenox Hill

 

By Paula Chin

 

Dr. Ellyn Berk took an unusual path to becoming a business consultant. After getting a master’s degree in musicology at Columbia University and a doctorate in aesthetics at New York University, the Westchester native worked briefly in the nonprofit world and went on to hold executive positions at Fortune 100 corporations. After a nearly 40-year career, Berk retired in 2019 and now devotes much of her time to her duties as board president at her 171-unit co-op, where she has lived for 36 years.

 

HABITAT: Can you tell us about your history at the co-op?

BERK: I moved here when I got married in 1984. My husband, Raymond, is a lawyer, and he led the effort when the building was converted in 1980. He was the co-op’s first president and was involved with the board for more than 10 years and still serves as a legal adviser. But during his time as president, I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on at the building, to be honest.

 

HABITAT: So when did you join the board, and why?

BERK: I joined in 2014. I felt that it was important to try to contribute after living here for so long. It was also an interesting moment because it was the beginning of a demographic shift in the co-op. Many of the original shareholders were retiring and moving out, and a new group of younger people was coming in, and there were children in the building for the first time. After six years on the board, I became president.

 

HABITAT: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your tenure?

BERK: Needless to say, the COVID-19 crisis has been an extraordinary challenge, and we all have certainly been tempered by it. But we have a fabulous staff that has kept us safe, and there have been no cases in the building. With the change in real estate prices, we have faced some challenges with the sales of apartments, but amazingly, we’ve done very well with that. And our reserves are in very good shape. But you know, nothing is ever static in the life of a co-op, because you’re always dealing with new regulations and laws and infrastructure issues.

 

HABITAT: What capital projects have you undertaken?

BERK: We recently did an elevator modernization, which was tricky because we only have two. We don’t have a service elevator, which meant the elevator that wasn’t being worked on had to be set aside at certain times during the day for garbage collection, moving renovation and construction materials and so forth. We had to come up with a schedule and inform our residents in advance. Managing the project was sort of like playing Tetris. Fortunately, we haven’t had to do any facade work. Before I joined the board, the co-op did a very large Local Law 11 job during the previous five-year cycle. The board had the foresight to plan ahead and did a massive effort, so when we came up for the new cycle there was virtually nothing to do this past year. It was a smart move.

 

HABITAT: It does sound like your board is pretty crackerjack. 

BERK: It is a good board. We’re very eclectic – we have a CPA, a Wall Street executive, a fashion industry exec and a well-known cinematographer – and everyone has really come together as a team. You know, you start with a group of volunteers who don’t understand the infrastructure issues or how the boiler or HVAC system works, and you have to educate yourself and become a sort of jack of many trades. It’s incumbent on you to make informed decisions. When you’re committing a million dollars to a project or close to it, you better know how that project is going to work and what’s the most effective way of spending that money.

 

HABITAT: Are there any upcoming projects in the works?

BERK: We were planning a major lobby and hallway renovation and had already engaged a designer, and then of course the shutdown happened, and we had to stop it. Redoing the lobby is a priority because like many buildings, we’ve seen an extraordinary increase in the number of packages arriving every day – I think it’s 300 times more than what it was four or five years ago. That’s a real problem when you have a finite amount of space, and we definitely have a finite amount of space. We have to figure out how to take the box and repurpose it. 

 

HABITAT: What do you find most rewarding being a board member?

BERK: Multiple-dwelling living circumstances are challenging because you don’t pick the people you’re living with, yet you are interdependent. Your finances are intertwined. It’s an actual interest of mine to figure out how to make those connections as comfortable as possible for as many people as possible. Our building is intergenerational – we have newborn babies and we have people in their 90s – and for me, figuring out how to give everybody a positive living experience is exciting. Of course, there are enormous frustrations, but – and I know this sounds trite – being on the board is actually a privilege.

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