One should not be fooled: serving on a co-op board is a commitment. It's a voluntary position in which those who are elected must cater to both the interests of their constituents and the property in which they themselves reside. Sleepwalk through the role, and not only are you likely to get voted out, but you're depriving a more proactive representative of the chance to improve quality of life and property value for everybody. It is truly a job for the dedicated.
And few are more dedicated than Barbara Gambino, who is the board president of a co-op on East 49th Street in Manhattan. Not only has Gambino served on the board for nearly 15 years, but she actually grew up in the building, and with the exception of about five years after college, has lived there for over 60 years.
The Cooperator spoke with Gambino about the ups and downs of committing to an association and its board for the long-haul.
The Cooperator: So how long have you been the co-op board president?
Gambino: Ten years. Prior to that, I was just a regular board member for five.
You've clearly got a history with your building. What inspired you to get more involved?
The board, prior to my joining, consisted of people who had recently purchased apartments in the building. There weren't any long-time tenants. So I felt as if those of us for whom the building meant a lot really needed representation. My father had worked as the superintendent here for 47 years. I just love this place.
Was there conflict between long-time and more recent tenants?
Not really. I think that we were very fortunate that those people who bought in mostly chose to live at the property. That said, we did have one or two who bought in more for investment purposes. One became the president of the board and was sort of running it as his little fiefdom. And I wanted to be on the board to challenge him. I eventually went on to replace him as president.
I think that, to really represent the shareholders in the best possible way, you have to live in the building, such that you can see the everyday problems while also realizing what's great about the place.
And we're very fortunate. We have a fabulous super, who is the sole employee at the building. He's been here for more than 20 years. We only had one other super for a short time, after my father retired. So in 70-plus years we've mainly had two superintendents, which signifies that the tenants and shareholders are really happy with their service. And it's a live-in position, so they keep the building very well-maintained.
It's a 10-story property, but there are only 38 units, which is very nice, because you really get to know everyone. We only have one elevator, so we're always running into each other there. And we hold a holiday party in the lobby; basically a pot-luck. I'm not a cook, so I just bring wine and dessert. It's an extremely family-oriented atmosphere, which I think is very unusual in Manhattan nowadays.
Outside of your predecessor, have you encountered any other conflict during your board tenure?
One of the downsides that comes with knowing everyone and running into them all of the time, as the board president, is that certain shareholders are very ready every time they meet you to levy a complaint or a comment. It's never, “Hey you're doing a great job!”
They only notice when things are going wrong, or when they perceive that things are going wrong.
Correct. And sometimes, maybe I'm having a bad day. And I don't want to hear, “What about this? What about that?” every time you see me. Sometimes a “Hi! How are you?” would be nice.
The relationship really shouldn't be a purely transactional burden for you.
Right. Up until two months ago, I'd had high-powered jobs. I worked for 36 years in the Department of Education. I left as a deputy regional superintendent. And for the last 10 years, I worked for a not-for-profit called New Visions for Public Schools. I was the director of leadership development and a network leader, through which I oversaw 26 high schools in the Bronx, and performed leadership coaching for principals and assistant principals.
Did the time commitment inherent in board service ever conflict with your career, or vice-versa?
I must say that, in all the years I've been on the board, I only missed one meeting, and that was because my father had passed away. Other than that, I take pride in my attendance record. We have these meetings once per month, but we email when necessary. I came in during the era of having a BlackBerry and expectations of rapid email replies. Sometimes I have to say to board members – and I did so quite recently – that they have to be a little more responsive; we were elected by the shareholders, we hold a responsibility to them, and we have to be at these meeting. If you can't do that, you have to leave the board.
What would you say is the primary reward for serving on the board for as long as you have?
I've recently interviewed people who are looking to buy an apartment in the building. When I asked them what attracted to the place, they said that it was incredibly well-maintained. Every time they came to visit, whenever they saw someone in the lobby or elevator, the residents were friendly. I take pride in that, in all of these years, the building hasn't gone downhill. If anything, it only gets better.
My older brother, who lives in Florida, visited recently. He was down in the basement with the super, reminiscing on days spent playing there as a kid, or helping my dad with the boiler, things like that. And he was amazed how clean things were. He marveled at our our marble lobby floor, which looks great. Hearing that from someone who'd lived here, but not for 40 years... that makes me proud.
Do you have any advice for newer board members looking to make their mark?
I think that you have to recognize when a shareholder is being abusive toward you, and tell them that, just because you serve on the board, they've no right to treat you in a disrespectful fashion. I expect to be treated with respect, and be spoken to in a civil manner. I guess that, with all my years dealing with angry parents in the school system--
You've built up a tolerance.
Right. It's a volunteer position, and I think that, every so often, people need to be reminded of that.
And you know what makes things easier? Good management. When the building first turned co-op, we had an awful management company. I remember, because my father was super at that time. They were just terrible and unresponsive. With our current management [Vanderbilt Property Management in Long Island’s Glenwood Landing], you can text Steve [Birbach, the president & CEO] and he'll get back right away. That's a big deal, as it makes our job much easier.
Mike Odenthal is a staff writer at The Cooperator.