Paula Chin in Building Operations on June 2, 2017
To celebrate our 35th anniversary, Habitat is telling the stories of multi-generational family businesses that have flourished along with the co-op and condo movements.
Lori Buchbinder joined Buchbinder & Warren because she didn’t want to have any regrets about the road not taken. She had been practicing law for 24 years when her father, Norman Buchbinder, died in 2007, nearly half a century after he had co-founded the real estate brokerage and management company that carries his name.
“He was working in the family millinery business and had just invested in a Harlem brownstone when he met Gene Warren at a party,” Lori recalls. “Gene was also in apparel and had dabbled in real estate, and they hit it off so well they agreed to start a firm together – literally with a handshake.” They also had an ironic connection: these two avowed capitalists were named after two avowed socialists, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.
Over the years, Buchbinder & Warren thrived, and after her father’s death Lori finally succumbed to the pull to become part of her father’s legacy. “It was his passion,” she says. “If I didn’t join then, I knew I’d never have another chance to see if I felt the same.”
Norman Buchbinder had been a pioneer. During the ’60s and ’70s, when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, it “took a great leap of faith to invest in real estate, which is what Norman did,” recalls Rosemary Paparo, the firm’s director of management, who came on board in 1977. “He was part of the early wave of co-op conversions, which really took off in the early ’80s. Norm ran the company intuitively and could always laser in on problems and find solutions. That said, he was a benevolent despot. When he wanted something done, it was done his way.”
That was just fine with his younger daughter, Susan, who joined the company after graduating from Adelphi University in 1982. “Yes, Dad could be forceful, impatient, and blunt, but he had a tremendous work ethic,” Susan says. Their desks were just inches apart, and Susan learned a lot working by his side, including the importance of responding to clients ASAP. But she did have one ongoing beef with her father: “I was always telling him to go home to my mom. He spent too much time at the office.”
In part, that was because the business was changing. “Things weren’t nearly as rigid and codified as they are now,” says Paparo. “We were very transparent with record-keeping, but as we acquired more properties, we had to deal with more rules and regulations. Norm not only realized we needed computers but even had the firm write a real-estate program because none were available. He was pretty cutting-edge.”
Even so, when Lori took the helm, she did make infrastructure changes, including updating IT programs to better track and archive information. “She’s streamlined and reorganized the company, which has made us much more efficient,” says Paparo.
Not that Lori didn’t have a learning curve of her own. “Going from a corporate legal department to a service-oriented business was a huge change,” she says. “I wasn’t used to dealing with such a wide spectrum of people, from employees to supers to complaining tenants. There were times when I just wanted to put a pillow over my head. It took a while to figure out how I could best contribute. I couldn’t fill my father’s shoes, but I could better liaise on compliance issues and court matters, and give employees greater leadership roles.”
The sisters, who are co-principals, continue to draw inspiration from their father. “We just went to a work breakfast where someone started talking about him,” says Lori. “He lives on through the company, and his vision keeps us motivated. What we’re doing is just an evolution of what he started.”
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