Bill Morris in Board Operations on November 29, 2019
This article is part of Habitat’s occasional series, "The Previous Lives of Property Managers."
As a teenager in the early 1970s, Seth Kobay worked weekends and summers in his father’s garment factory in lower Manhattan. “I worked on labelling and shipping, and I worked all over the warehouse where they did the cutting and sewing,” recalls Kobay, now 64. “The city was a whole different world back then. There were areas you didn’t even want to walk in. And there I was, a teenage kid from Queens, pushing a pallet of clothes from the Lower East Side up to Astor Place.”
But those sketchy city streets and that garment factory were a school, in their way. “My father grew up in the Bronx, the son of a Polish immigrant who worked as a tailor,” Kobay says, “and he wanted me to learn about hard work. It was good for me. I got an education on how a business runs.”
What a difference a half-century makes. After graduating from Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, and then studying business and accounting at Hofstra University in Hemptstead, Long Island, Kobay went to work doing audits for accounting firms on Long Island and in Manhattan – “pain-in-the-neck work,” as he puts it. But again, he was learning. “I had a couple of clients who owned or managed real estate,” he says, “including the Anti-Defamation League. There I learned about how real estate works – the importance of keeping a building rented and maintained.”
By then Kobay had married a woman he met in high school, Miriam Schlack, and they had started a family – two girls and a boy, and now four grandchildren. The grandparents live on a golf course in Commack, Long Island, where Kobay can feed his addiction to the game three or four times a week.
While slogging through an audit one day, a fellow auditor told Kobay about a real-estate investment firm that was looking for a controller. Goodbye, pain-in-the-neck work.
Kobay went to work on the finance side at Gould Investors Trust while the company was expanding its real-estate portfolio during the boom years of the 1980s. By the time the crash of 1987 hit, Kobay was the company treasurer, with a finger in all facets of the business, including overseeing a wave of co-op and condo conversions.
“Not a fun experience,” he says of the crash and its aftermath, “but very educational. We were underwater on mortgages, we had to do workouts on loans. Some we gave up on, and some came back very strong five years later. I learned a lot. The first thing I learned was not to panic, and the second thing I learned was to be realistic.”
Kobay was eventually put in charge of a Gould affiliate, Great Neck-based Majestic Property Management, a name that only hints at the company’s diverse operations, which range from management to construction, sales, and leasing at commercial and residential properties sprinkled from New York to California. Though managing co-ops and condos accounts for less than a quarter of the Majestic’s business, Kobay takes his management role seriously.
“It’s labor-intensive work,” he says. “I go to monthly and annual board meetings, I prepare budgets and review financials every month. Why? Because I’m the only one I trust.” After a short laugh, he continues, “It’s partially true. I have to get reports out on a timely basis, but I want them to be accurate. A lot of boards are very sophisticated today, but even the sophisticated ones may not have the background to understand, say, the new rules on door-lock monitors on elevators. The boards want detail, and they want explanations of the detail. I have people to do that, but I make sure I’m copied on those explanations. I like to be involved.”
Though he may be the only person he trusts, Kobay knows how to delegate. “We have a good co-op and condo management team,” he says. “I’ve been told by boards and lawyers that our records and reporting are clear. That’s the first thing I learned – we’re in the service business. If you don’t service the client, that’ll get around very quickly, especially in a co-op or condominium. We can’t have that. The clients are the people who pay our salaries, and we have to do things in a way so they appreciate we’re trying to do the right thing. I think we’re good at that. And I’m proud of that.”
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