Keeping it Copacetic Tips for healthy agent-board relationships

All relationships–even the healthiest ones–need constant care and maintenance. Whether it’s person-to-person or business-to-client, relationships must be cultivated in order to thrive–a fact that holds doubly true for the crucial connection between co-op and condo boards and their managing agents.

At times, maintaining the connection can be a challenge. There are several keys, however, to maintaining an efficient and effective relationship between board and agent. Underpinning everything is a mutual acknowledgement of the enormous responsibilities undertaken by both board members and agents. Managing agents must recognize that the average board member is an unpaid volunteer concerned enough about his or her home to devote time and energy to its day-to-day operation. By the same token, board members must also recognize the efforts of their agent. According to Sherry Frankel, president of property management firm Caran Properties, Inc. in Manhattan, "The board needs to recognize that the managing agent has a very large responsibility and needs [the board’s] support and assistance."

Getting the Job Done

Management responsibilities are broad in scope. A managing agent’s ever-changing roles often include that of accountant, negotiator, diplomat, engineer, therapist, interior designer, lawyer and best friend. An agent will be part of nearly every decision–big or small–affecting a building and its inhabitants. Agents attend to day-to-day financial transactions, manage and hire staff, and work hand-in-hand with the board on matters of policy and implementation, advising and providing the information necessary to make everything work smoothly, practically, and legally.

And that’s just the everyday duties. Agents step in whenever duty calls. If a legal matter arises, the agent is on hand, recommending or bringing along experts to advise and protect their client. If garbage is piling up along the basement stairs and causing a problem, the agent works with the superintendent to get the problem solved. If a board is considering revamping a building’s common area, it’s often the agent who will secure bids, interview designers and contractors, and help the board determine the best, most efficient way to undertake the project. "We want to help save money and use people who we know are good," says John Lipuma, president of Brooklyn-based JAL Diversified Management. "Boards come to us for just about everything," says Frankel. "They seek our advice and opinion on just about everything, unless it’s an issue specifically for an attorney or CPA."

Great Expectations

With so much responsibility resting on a few, some difficulties are inevitable when expectations fail to mesh with realities. Boards may expect more from their agent than the agent can humanly deliver. According to Lipuma, most management companies earn around $20 a month per apartment. In a 100-unit building, that averages out to about $66 a day to manage an entire building. Usually, a manager will visit the building once a week to inspect the premises, make sure everything is clean and maintained, and speak to tenants or board members who may have issues or concerns that need to be addressed. A weekly visit is a good opportunity for agents and residents to interact and communicate outside of the more formal setting of a board meeting.

Difficulties arise when boards expect managers to be on-site constantly, or to take care of details best left to the judgment of the superintendent or porter. "Sometimes they’ll expect us to be there every day and manage the superintendent, going around and doing the white-glove test on windowsills and railings," Lipuma says. In terms of manpower, time, and money, that kind of constant on-site attention is simply unrealistic. Boards and residents must realize that an agent’s role is to manage–not to be a constant presence, overseeing the minutia of the building’s operations. They may be in on relatively minor decisions that affect the building, but it’s just not possible for most of them to dust chandeliers and answer accounting questions on Sunday afternoon.

Stopping Problems Before They Start

Obviously, a respectful, professional relationship between a board and its agent is vital to a building’s well being. The question is, what’s the best way to maintain it?

As in all relationships, communication is key. According to Lipuma, "There has to be communication and regular meetings. The board needs to convey its needs, and the managing agent needs to respond and offer his or her own suggestions on what can be done. If people know up-front what to expect, there won’t be any problems."

Creating and maintaining a structure for interaction helps in the long run as well. According to Frankel, "To efficiently run a building, the board should have a structure in place for communicating with an agent."

This includes writing down and prioritizing concerns before meeting with an agent, and seeing to it that board members do their part to help the managing agent do theirs. The greatest successes come when board officers know their duties and the structure of their role as well as where the agent fits in; the board treasurer handles all the financial transactions, monitoring bills and examining monthly reports, and coming to agents for clarifications and specific concerns; the secretary takes care of the minutes and manages distribution and approvals; the president presides over meetings, serving as the key liaison between fellow board members and the managing agent.

For more productive meetings, Frankel recommends boards stick to an agreed-upon structure. "Keep it simple," she says, "otherwise, the agent will receive questions from too many people," and confusion and wasted time will ensue. Managers are unanimous in preferring that board members present issues in a clear, concise, non-confrontational way, and allow for two-way problem solving. With a meeting hierarchy established and functioning, organization and communication become clear, and the manager-board relationship is enhanced, rather than hindered.

In the grander scheme, all parties need to know and understand their responsibilities. When board members retire or step down, new members need to work with the "old pros" as well as the agent to learn exactly how meetings function, how policies are determined, and what exactly is expected of everyone involved. As Frankel says, "There needs to be continuity."

Streamlining dialogue cuts the fat and helps everyone to have an equal say and a clearer understanding of what’s going on. "The most important thing," says Frankel, "is to make sure everything is ready for decisions when it comes time to meet, so it’s not a 12-hour discussion. You don’t want to waste everyone’s time on very small, relatively insignificant matters." Long, tedious meetings contribute to board member burnout, neglect of important issues, and agent-board friction. As a rule, it’s always best to cut to the chase and keep to the point.

Too Many Cooks

This streamlining approach extends to the relationship between the board, their agent, and the building staff, too. Both Lipuma and Frankel agree that it is vital for staff to report directly to the managing agent–not to the board, or to residents themselves. Not only does that link remove the burden of direction from the board–allowing them to take care of the larger issues under their purview–but it makes the staff’s job easier as well. "The agent can act as a buffer between the board and its staff," Frankel says.

Often, problems arise when board members issue instructions that contradict plans and tasks already laid out by managers. Lipuma cites an example of a board member asking his building’s superintendent to clean the basement. Not only did the super have his own daily duties to perform, but other factors had to be sorted out before the project could take shape. The agent had to make arrangements to have the refuse from the basement removed, requiring a special call to the city. Details like these can make a seemingly trivial request escalate, creating tension and causing more problems than they solve. "You don’t want seven board members to run out and give the super seven different sets of instructions," Lipuma says. The same holds true for residents. "We’ll ask owners to call us with complaints and then we’ll talk to the superintendent or other staff."

The Cult of Personality

As with any relationship, the personality factor counts big-time between boards and agents. Obviously, a board is composed of a set of individuals–each with a distinct personality. While this can be a hotbed for creative brainstorming and problem solving, it can also add up to vastly different priorities and agendas. While part of a building’s agent is to reconcile these sometimes-divergent points of view, it’s also up to the board to allow the agent to help them help themselves. "An agent will try to understand board issues and the personalities involved," says Frankel. Often, that means serving as something of a diplomat.

According to Lipuma, "The manager needs to focus on who the board members are," particularly since an individual will occasionally join a board "because they have their own agendas. Maybe they want to reduce maintenance fees because they want to sell their unit. But reducing fees might not be in the best interest of the building. Sometimes a managing agent is stuck in an awkward position."

In such cases, it’s important to remember what everyone’s central goal should be: the well being of the building and its residents. "As a management company, we work for the co-op or condo," Lipuma says. "That’s where our loyalty lies. We’ll give the advice that’s best for the building." Frankel agrees: "The board needs to remember they’re running a building. It’s a business."

A cohesive board also bodes well for an effective working relationship. "We try to convey that decisions really should be made by the entire board–not just one or two people," Lipuma says. "Sometimes board officers will begin dictating to managers what they want, and it might not be something the board as a whole will want. We try to look at the board as a body, not as a group of individuals."

At the core of the agent-board relationship–whatever other labels may be applied to it–is a business agreement. The managing agent is employed by the board to lend his or her professional expertise to a host of complicated questions and issues that the board members themselves might not be equipped to deal with on their own. The agent is an employee, but also an expert. The board is an authoritative body, but also in need of the agent’s input. For the relationship to be of maximum benefit to everyone involved, it’s vital that communication, compromise, and respect be the watchwords on both sides of the equation.

Ms. Lent is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to

The Cooperator.

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