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Management knows when they have a job well done, but when something goes wrong, that's when they will hear about it.

Management Trials & Triumphs: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

Cooperator News – January 2023 Management

Management Trials & Triumphs:

The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

By A.J. Sidransky   

Like any profession, property management has its moments. Managers often feel a sense of great achievement when they’ve done a good job for a client community, sorting out a seemingly intractable problem, saving them thousands of dollars, or mediating an interpersonal dispute before it turns ugly. Ironically, that good work is rarely recognized—but the moment something goes wrong, or there’s a complaint, you can be sure the manager will hear all about it—often from multiple sides.

Ups & Downs

In one respect, a manager’s job can be viewed as regularly scheduled programming, occasionally interrupted by urgent breaking news. The underlying goal of property management is to organize the known components of building operations into a smooth, seamless process. Maintenance and repair work gets done, inspections are made, packages are delivered, staff is supervised, and nobody thinks much about it. Every so often however, something may happen that will disrupt the regular work flow. That can be anything from a broken pipe to a plane crashing into the building. Then residents most definitely take notice—but we’ll return to that shortly.

On a more esoteric level, disruption isn’t always caused by something physical. Interpersonal and administrative issues come up all the time, particularly in residential communities such as co-ops, condos, and HOAs. Bad governance and disputes between neighbors can cripple a community’s ability to function. Managers must respond. A good manager must often be as good a therapist as they are an expert in financial matters and engineering.

On a Clear Day…

Tragedy often strikes with no notice—think of the 2021 Surfside condominium collapse in Florida. But sometimes, when the moving pieces in a community work smoothly and efficiently, total disaster can be averted even under extraordinary circumstances. When that’s the case, it’s a triumph for a dedicated manager.

One such situation happened on a clear, beautiful day in October 2006, when a small private plane piloted by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle slammed into the Belaire apartments on New York’s Upper East Side. “This was the most difficult situation I’ve managed in my career,” says Dan Wollman, CEO of Gumley Haft, a management firm based in Manhattan, and the Belaire’s manager. 

Upon being alerted of the crisis, Wollman says he found himself in the midst of dozens of first responders, firefighters, police, EMS, even the FAA. “We evacuated the building,” he says, though “most residents were out when the crash occurred.” The two people in the plane, Lidle and his flight instructor, both died in the crash, but fortunately most of the Belaire residents who were home suffered only minor injuries. Wollman says that one resident was more severely injured, but made a full recovery. 

As for the building itself, Wollman says, “The crash severed a gas line on the upper floors, and there was a fire and a ton of water damage to all 30 floors.” 

Perhaps the oddest part of the accident was that the plane itself was equipped with a parachute, so that if the aircraft lost power, the parachute would deploy, and allow the plane to glide down for a safe(r) landing. When the plane hit the building, the parachute apparatus wasn’t initially found. “The first responders thought it might be on the street,” says Wollman, “and were concerned about the apparatus reacting and unfurling, because that unfurling could kill someone.” 

Thankfully, however, “They got the fires out, and found the parachute. The result was that we had a very large insurance claim, but could rebuild. We had a bunch of apartments that were uninhabitable for 8 to 12 months, but were completely rebuilt.”

Not quite as “out-of-thin-air” as the crisis at the Belaire, Wollman found himself in the middle of another physical disaster resulting from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. He managed a building on Main Street in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood of mostly converted warehouse and industrial buildings.  

“When the building was converted,” says Wollman, “the ground floor apartments were duplexed to the lower level basement.” During the storm, “the entire bottom of the building from lobby down was flooded out. Literally destroyed. We had the elevator motor room and the electrical room in the basement. Everything was destroyed. We had a massive insurance claim. On top of that, during the rebuilding process, the electrical contractor put all the copper wiring in a room to store it, and it was stolen. Someone on the board told us that there’s an aftermarket for copper wiring. Of course, that only complicated the recovery. But, with an outside generator, we were able to resume both elevator and electric service to the building and were able to rebuild, which took months.”

Wollman stresses that the key to success in disaster situations like these is not heroic feats of courage or masterful logistics, but managing residents’ expectations. In any disaster situation, Wollman says that residents will pull together and act cooperatively—at first. But that response lasts only so long.  

“We are talking about people’s homes,” he says. “Their lives have been disrupted. What happens is that people are understanding initially, but then they lose patience quickly—and that’s the common thread.” Shock and the all-in-this-together attitude turns fairly quickly into ‘get-me-back-into-my-apartment’—“and that’s not so easy to do,” says Wollman. “There are lots of moving parts in terms of insurance, repairs, inspections, scheduling, etc. What was damaged? Common areas and elements, or individual units? I say an event like this is successfully resolved when we get everyone back into their apartments, and the building restored to its original condition. That’s success.” Wollman notes with pride that at the Belaire, only one unit owner pressed a lawsuit after the tragic crash.

Dysfunction is Disruption

“While physical building issues can be a very big challenge for a community,” says Noushig Hagopian, a vice president with FirstService Residential New England, “boards who are not aligned in their vision and goals for the community can be one of the greatest challenges.”

“A board that is well-aligned and works together for the benefit of the community is a recipe for success,” she continues. “This is the foundation of a healthy and stable community. But that’s not always present. Some trustees have never served on a board, some may have personal agendas, others are complacent, etc. Management’s job is to help the board come together to create a path for the community that addresses all the duties they are responsible for carrying out. We do this by helping boards stay on task to create a schedule of responsibilities as provided by the governing documents, and which the community needs. When this doesn’t happen, we often suggest board alignment workshops to address the specific needs of the board and community. These workshops can help the board understand their roles and responsibilities, as well as create short- and long-term plans for the community.”

“Another serious challenge in condominium communities is a general deep-rooted disagreement on the proper course and goals of the community,” continues Hagopian. “There are varied opinions between owners about how things should be done, and owners often do not hesitate to make their opinions known. Sometimes this behavior creates a very toxic culture in the community. This negative behavior among some unit owners can create a large schism—and this may lead to hostility, anger, and harassing behavior from some unit owners towards the board, toward fellow unit owners, and even staff members.

“Good managers work hard to help keep the peace, and to be fair and honest with all unit owners,” she says. “One way to manage these behaviors is to create a forum where unit owners can address their concerns with the board—perhaps a monthly board meeting where the board can provide a time for questions from unit owners, so owners can be heard. Adopting a code of conduct for board members is also a good approach. This sets the tone for behavior that is expected for the benefit of all. We strongly suggest that boards consider this tool, and we’ve seen it have a good amount of success. As always, we work closely with our boards to help achieve harmony.”

Words of Advice

As someone once said, ‘luck’ is the result of advance preparation. The better prepared you are, the less ‘luck’ you wind up needing to handle even the most challenging of circumstances.

“One of the most important things a manager and a board can do,” says Wollman, “is to make sure the property has adequate insurance. The two instances I described had very big insurance claims. Know that the people who live in the building also have enough insurance as well. Make sure everyone is covered. We have to fix the building, but the unit owner, maybe not so much. It’s imperative and important to have adequate insurance.”

“Most issues and challenges in communities, be it the physical building, governance, knowledge of financial and reserves, and interpersonal issues require a broad skill set,” says Hagopian. “Successful managers have good financial acumen, patience, exceptional organizational and planning abilities, empathy, excellent communication skills, effective conflict management, and problem-solving skills. I encourage communities to work together to overcome challenges and turn them into opportunities.”