When Marleen Levi was elected president of the board of her 75-unit co-op in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, she fit in perfectly. Not only had she played a central role in wresting control of the building from a nefarious sponsor, her professional skills from working in the financial-services industry were useful for overseeing the building.
That was more than 20 years ago. Every two years since then, like clockwork, Levi has been re-elected to the board and the presidency. Today, Levi is considering how and when she'll step down. There's just one problem: Levi doesn't have an obvious replacement, and she's not about to leave the job in just anyone's hands. "I'm protecting my own investment," she says.
Alvin Schein, the former co-op board president at 51 West 81st Street, offers advice on how boards can effect a smooth transition when a longtime leader steps down.
Levi has plenty of company. "There comes a time, with many, many long-term people on boards, that they want to step down, and they feel very strongly that there's no one to replace them," says real estate lawyer Theresa Racht (left), a partner at Racht & Taffae. Take the example of a longtime Queens condo board president who prefers not to be identified. "I'm afraid if I step down, if I walk away, then things just won't happen," she says. "And if things don't get done, our property values are only going to decrease."
Call Me Irreplaceable?
Certainly not everyone is qualified to be a board president. But with rare exceptions no director is irreplaceable. "I would argue that the talent has to be there — unless it's a truly tiny building," says Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC). Adds Racht: "The truth is, there is someone. They may not run the place the same way you did," she cautions. "You just have to bring those people along."
Doing so involves a combination of recruitment, training, and long-term planning. But the culture of a given building may not foster participation. The Brooklyn board president finds that many residents in her building have a "renter mentality" in that "they think the condo should be doing everything for them," she says. "They don't understand the need for replacing a roof or putting in new hot water heaters, and they don't understand they have to pay for that." Before finding people to groom for board slots, she says, she must work on educating residents "to understand that they own and don't rent, which is not an easy thing to do."
Losing an experienced board president can be a major loss to a building. "People get on the board, become president, and then get seasoned as the years go by," says Gerard J. Picaso (above), president of a management company that bears his name. "They just learn more — the best ways to communicate, to run meetings, how to work with a managing agent, an accountant, attorneys. You can work with them well; they know what they're doing."
Still, one of the strengths of an effective board president is knowing that he or she can't do it all — and can't last forever.
"The dangerous thing in any co-op is if the president assumes too much control," says real estate lawyer Alvin Schein (see video above), a partner at Seiden & Schein, who was board president at the Manhattan co-op 51 West 81st Street for 21 years, stepping down in 2010. "When that happens, you have an autocrat, hopefully a benevolent autocrat, but then the president has all the knowledge and makes himself or herself irreplaceable."
Get Them Serving on Committees
Many professionals suggest that boards urge new residents to they serve on committees, as a way to involve people in the running of a building. Picaso calls committee service a useful "rite of passage" to prime people for the board. "A current president who wants to leave is looking at those committee people with the idea that some of them might be good enough to become board president."
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