The Bond Between Manager and Super
Cultivating a Healthy Relationship
Peace of mind comes from knowing that not only do you have the right people doing the right job, but also knowing that those people work and respect each other personally and as a team.
Having been a building superintendent for almost 30 years, I can honestly say that I have seen it all. More importantly, I have seen many changes over the years in how buildings are run and how building staff and management interact. Back in the "good old days," the super was king of the building. What he said went. He hired and fired whom he wanted, and rarely felt compelled to listen to the managing agent or the board, running the building as he saw fit. Back then, supers even rented apartments. Today, it's rare for supers to have such direct influence. While some supers may have some discretion in running their buildings, others are kept on a relatively short leash.
What Makes a Well-Run Building Run Well?
Teamwork is at the top of the answer list; teamwork between the managing agent, the superintendent and the board is vital to any building. Dick Koral, director of the Apartment House Institute at the New York City College of Technology and secretary-treasurer of the Superintendents Club of New York, has been involved with building operations for over 30 years and is considered a guru amongst people involved with real estate. According to Koral, "For a co-op/condo building to be maintained effectively, there needs to be close and respectful collaboration among a troika consisting of the board - represented by one person designated as chair of the building and grounds committee - the building site manager, and the building's superintendent. A good analogy might be a three-legged stool: If one leg is weak, the stool is not very useful."
People Make a Building Run"¦or Stumble
Ask any cook what makes a dish great, and she might reply that it's all in the right proportion of ingredients. So what makes a building well run? Well, it's all the ingredients coming together, in the right proportions. Just as in cooking, if you leave one ingredient out or change the proportion, it changes the dish - and not always for the better. Teamwork, trust, and devotion should be a credo in your building and not just words. Is it super-versus-managing agent in your building, or is it super-and-managing agent?
Sometimes, a super and a managing agent are bound to butt heads - I've been there myself. In that scenario no one wins, least of all the building. Some board members think that it's healthy to have the super and managing agent at odds with each other all the time - as though conflict stimulates new ideas and productivity. Perhaps in some cases, that's correct in the short term, but in the long term, it never works. Ask any building that has a high turnover with supers or managers, and you will find disorder, neglect, and even outright chaos.
Superintendents have a tremendous amount of responsibility that few laypeople fully appreciate. We are the captains of the ship, so to speak, and are therefore responsible for everything in our building, including the health and security of the residents and their families, as well as their comfort and quality of life.
It seems many supers believe that they are undervalued and are not utilized to their fullest potential. "It just seems that people won't let us do our jobs at times," says Howard White, a super on the Upper East Side. "Too often, a super is looked at as an uneducated, glorified porter - yet a super knows most everything about his building, but is rarely asked his opinion."
I have a great working relationship with my managing agent, Ellen Kornfeld - vice president of The Lovett Company, a real estate management firm based in Manhattan - but I didn't arrive at it easily. I used to be stubborn, but have learned to adjust over the years. I had to earn her trust in the beginning. But now trust and devotion to our job goes both ways. I can always reach Ellen 24 hours a day if needed. Total access works well between the both of us because we know when to use it - and when not to.
"Trust is the number-one, key component," says Kornfeld, "that makes my working relationship with a superintendent work. No matter how talented or knowledgeable a superintendent may be, it's all useless unless I can count on him or her to solve problems and or deliver work as promised. [The super] and I are the dynamic duo that keeps cost down and staff productive. Any time day or night we can find each other to address any challenge that comes up."
It's all about learning together as you go along. The superintendent learns from the managing agent and the managing agent learns from the superintendent. Knowledge and experience are shared to solve problems.
There's No "I" in "TEAM"
Teamwork goes hand in hand with trust - and part of that is each side knowing where the line is, what their duties are and what is expected. Joseph Hill, a resident manager on the Upper East Side, says, "The seeds for a strong super/agent relationship are sown in most cases as soon as you walk through the management company door. Job description, compensation package, and what is expected of you should be known by the end of the interview. A good practice is to forward a weekly report to your agent on how the building is operating, leaving nothing out. This way, the agent is never left in the dark."
When Things Go Awry
Who mediates when things go awry between the superintendent and the managing agent? The board? The president of the managing company? The union, if it's a union building? It's always best to nip these things in the bud before they get out of hand. Union and arbitration should be last resort. In most cases, what works well is having one board member and the president of the management company meet with the super. That way, all sides can present their situation, and in most cases resolve the problem without the full board needing to intervene.
Good boards don't want to fire managing agents and supers, especially good ones. Having an appointed advocate or liaison between the board and super also works well to diffuse difficulties. It's crucial that the super knows he or she can talk to someone on the board, who will listen and advise, when necessary. Too often, supers are thrown in to sink or swim by themselves. It is difficult to do a great job when you have no guidance or direction - how can a super monitor whether he or she is on the right track, or way off course? Lack of communication between the board, agent, and the super is the number-one single culprit for problems with supers and vice versa.
To sum it all up, devotion, trust, teamwork and communication are the key ingredients to a good recipe for a well-run building. How is your building running?
Peter Grech is president of the Superintendents Technical Association of New York, formerly The Supers Club, (www.nysupersclub.org) and a veteran building super himself.