It's Good to Be the President (Sometimes)

It’s not a thankless job, necessarily—every once in a while residents will express their gratitude, if the elevator ride is sufficiently awkward—but it is a moneyless one. It’s also a hefty part-time job at best, and can at times take upwards of 20 hours a week to do. And forget about taking a vacation.

So what—other than masochistic tendencies and/or megalomania—possesses people to serve as board presidents?  What exactly do these selfless toilers do, to distinguish themselves from the other board members anyway?  What makes good presidents good—and bad ones bad?  And why, if the job is really so terrible, do people serve as presidents for so long?

The Motives

There are many reasons shareholders seek the presidency of their board.  Some are eager to serve, others are eager to lead, and still more do it because someone has to and no one else will.

Donna Klein, president of 314 West 56th Street Owners Corp. in Manhattan, assumed the presidency last October.  She felt that her real estate background—she was the executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM) for 18 years, among other things—would be an asset on the board.

“Also, my home is my largest investment, and I wanted to keep an eye on it,” she says.

Warren Schreiber, in his fourth year as president at Bay Terrace Cooperative I in Queens, agreed to serve after shareholders urged him to run.

“I felt I would do a good job,” he says.

The four-time president of The Franconia, David Wineberg, sought the post because at his 20 West 72nd Street cooperative because he had specific changes he wanted to make.

“I had a program to implement,” he says.

Three presidents, three different answers.  But is there a right answer?

Yes, says Gerard Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso, Inc., a management company in Manhattan.

“The best want to serve because they believe they can help the community and use their expertise and their personality to help,” he says.  “The ones who don’t work out so well are those who are on a power trip.”  

As for the power-trippers, it’s not so much the dictatorial management style that rankles, but the iron curtain.  Secrecy is great if you’re in the CIA; if you’re the president of your co-op board, not so much.

“Communication is absolutely the key,” Wineberg says.

When he was a junior board member, Wineberg began a quarterly newsletter to inform residents of decisions the board had made, construction proposals that were on the table, sale prices in the building and other real estate trends, and forecasts for assessments and maintenance issues.  He has continued circulating the newsletter as president.

“An informed shareholder is more valuable to me, as president, that someone I have to explain everything to from scratch,” he says.

Klein agrees. “We have monthly board meetings.  We distribute minutes.  We keep open lines of communication,” she says.

What Makes the Good Ones Good

“Although it’s a community, it’s a business we’re running, and it must be run like a business,” Picaso says, when asked what makes good presidents good.

“Everyone must be treated the same, and decisions must be made in a businesslike manner, without emotion. If you can do that, and work with your managing agent in a partnership, it’s a home run all around.”

Schreiber agrees.  “Always keep it on a professional level,” he says.  “You have to have a thick skin, and recognize that people aren’t criticizing you, per se, but the corporation.”

That said, presiding over a board at a cooperative or condominium is not exactly the same as running, say, Microsoft. Bill Gates does not inhabit a large building with all of his shareholders.

“In a regular corporation, shareholders don’t live with the company,” Klein notes.  “You have to balance quality of life with the financials.”

Indeed, maintaining the right balance between the social and the economic is one of the greatest challenges a board president faces.

“You have to be flexible,” says Schreiber.  “You have to be able to adapt to situations as they occur and change accordingly.”

While the tasks board presidents must perform can be on the dry side—some people begin to yawn the minute they see the word “fiduciary”—it is critical that presidents be energized by the job.

“You have to have a burning desire to understand the co-op world, which has its own laws, its own vendors, and so forth,” Wineberg says. “You have to dive into that world, and be constantly updating your abilities. If you’re not interested—get off the board.”

The Day-to-Day

Board presidents have more responsibility than other board members. The secretary’s function is primarily administrative; the treasurer’s, financial.  The vice president generally acts when the president is not able to. But the president has the most taxing day-to-day job.

First, presidents must interact with a lot of different people on a regular basis: the managing agent, the maintenance crew, the super, the property manager, the corporate attorney, the accountant, a slew of vendors—and, of course, the shareholders.

“I’m the first one to receive complaints, if there are complaints,” Schreiber says.

“Presidents are the arbitrators on the board,” Picaso says. “They also act as sergeants-at-arms, making sure things get done in a timely fashion.”

Presidents are also the “guiding force” of the board, in Klein’s phrase, setting up meeting agendas, reminding others to attend meetings, and generally acting as point person for just about everything.

With great responsibility comes a great many hours of work.

Schreiber’s day begins early, with e-mail exchanges and phone calls, and ends in the early afternoon, but can stretch into the late evening, depending on the situation.

“We have a hands-on board,” he says, “and I’m a hands-on president.”

Because he is a retiree, he has the time to dedicate to the job.  He sympathizes with moonlighting presidents who have to work long hours at their day jobs.

Klein works from home, and her flexible schedule affords her the ability to fulfill her duties.  Still, the work takes up a healthy chunk of her time.  “It is a job,” she says, “part-time at best.”

“I can do the work now in ten hours a week,” says Wineberg.  “But it was 20 hours a week for the first few years.”  This, despite the fact that his learning curve was less because he was already on the board when he was elevated to president.

Of course, presidents are not completely alone.  The best boards do operate as teams, and presidents have at their disposal real estate professionals to lend support in the fields of law, accounting, engineering, etc.

Red Tape and Resources

Being a board president is tough anywhere, but being a board president in New York City, with its arcane laws and regulations, is even tougher.  

The Franconia, for example, while not a historic building, is in a historic district, which complicates just about everything.

“That adds to the challenge,” Wineberg says.

With all these complications, what resources are out there for presidents to expand and grow?

Every year, there are three or four seminars and shows at various locations in the city, which Wineberg recommends attending.  

“Each one has a different focus, but it’s the same every year,” he says.

The Cooperator’s annual Co-op & Condo Expo is in its 20th year at the New York Hilton. Next year’s show will take place on April 25, 2007. Buildings New York convenes at the Javits Center each summer and in late September the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM) conducts a show at the Hotel Pennsylvania, followed by the CNYC’s event at Hunter College in November. Not only do presidents learn information they may not have known, they also get to meet and mingle with their peers.

“Subscriptions to the two publications, The Cooperator and Habitat, are essential,” Wineberg says (without, it should be noted, any prompting from this reporter). “They’re a lifeline to what goes on in the industry.”

The Rewards

The role of board president is a difficult job, one that makes you a lightning rod for grousing residents, and one that pays nada.  It can also be thankless—literally.

“When something goes right, the whole board takes credit,” says Schreiber. “When something goes wrong, it’s, ‘Warren messed up.’”

So what are the rewards for doing the job?

“Next to none,” says Klein with a chuckle. “It’s not a glory thing.  You do it because of a feeling you have and a need to contribute.”

“But seriously,” she continues, “when a shareholder says, ‘Thanks so much, you’re doing a good job, the building looks good, I’m glad you sent out the minutes from the last meeting,’ that makes it worth it.”

So next time you’re stuck in the elevator with your board president, don’t forget to say thank you.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer living in upstate New York.

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2 Comments

  • As a fellow president, I can relate to the difficulties of being president. Thank you for your insights on learning the process. One of the most difficult tasks is to learn to delegate responsibilities and keep participation from others up. When it comes to committees, what is your opinion on board members wishing to participate yet have their apartments up for sale and no longer reside in the building? Isn't this a conflict of interest and if so, would it be a board decision to not allow them on such a committee or a building vote?
  • Where can I find a job description for president under NY corporate business law?