Co-op Board Leadership: Four Portraits
By Karen Jones
Oct. 1, 2008 — Part 1, we looked at how two board presidents, one in Queens, one in Brooklyn, used vision, strategy and motivation to achieve tangible results that significantly improved their communities. What they did, you can do.
Here are two more such leaders, in two more neighborhoods and two very different circumstances. What they and our first duo have in common is a reasoned, diplomatic approach that places the community over themselves, and the ability to communicate simply and clearly. Here are their stories....
TOM VAN BUSKIRK: The Politician
Board President, Flowerview Gardens, Floral Park, Queens Co-op — 287 units
Tom Van Buskirk, newly arrived at the 27-building, 287-unit Flowerview Gardens cooperative in Floral Park, didn't like what he saw. "It seemed like the management company was running the co-op," he recalls. And they weren't doing it well: The board appeared dysfunctional, management was spending money without supervision, the co-op was physically in disrepair and the residents — a mixed bag of senior citizens, blue collar workers, and yuppies — were restless and unhappy.
Van Buskirk, only 27, is a former firefighter, and he immediately put his rescue skills to work. He was elected board president, partly because no one wanted the job, and other board members, who serve two-year terms, had either moved or resigned in his first year. He quickly pursued and persuaded qualified new members to fill the six-person board and was particularly pleased to convince a financial expert to sign up.
"He was a huge help," Van Buskirk notes. "We had major financial problems and there was no accounting for how money was spent." With his colleague's blessing, Van Buskirk changed management companies and put caps on how much could be spent without board approval. He also brought back an on-site super, a post that had been, in Van Buskirk's view, wrongly eliminated.
"Tom is a remarkable politician," says Peter Lehr, director of management at Kaled Management, the current manager. "He has managed to make a dysfunctional board function, and he is very adept at handling the needs of the property's varied population."
Van Buskirk likes working with people, and does so every day at his job as a senior instructor for the training department at Cablevision. In his three years at Flowerview and on the board, he has successfully reversed a dangerous disconnect among the board, management and shareholders, and steered the complex through major capital improvements. His politicking, accessibility and rapport were so welcomed that he was soon able to proceed with an extensive, $2 million brick-refacing project initiated by the previous board.
"He handled it like a seasoned pro," recalls Lehr. "He put himself out there, which I think is the most important aspect of a leader. He is on the front lines and knows what is going on in the property." The refacting took 2 ½ years to complete throughout the complex. "Every single building was touched," says Van Buskirk. "In some cases entire walls were replaced. We did this all with a minimum of impact to our shareholders."
He also negotiated a deal with Verizon, which paid the co-op a hefty sum to install Fios cable on the grounds. He convinced the board to use the money to turn 3,400 square feet of concrete into a park. This provides families with a fenced-in area where children can play, and where the board hosts a community party twice a year.
Although there is no tie-breaker with a six-person board, Van Buskirk says that disagreements do not lead to heated arguments. "Everyone listens to everyone else and we make informed decisions as to what's good for the co-op." Still, he admits there are times when he feels he has to force the board in a certain direction. "The trick is to be tactful. You have to be able to justify why you put your foot down. A good leader only shuts someone down if they have just cause."
The complex attracts young families who are not looking for maintenance increases but are interested in going green with energy usage. "Our biggest challenge now are energy costs," he says, noting that the board is saving money by replacing such equipment as boilers and thermostats with more efficient models as the old ones break down. The co-op has consequently cut its energy bills significantly, which all residents, regardless of demographics, appreciate.
According to Lehr, Van Buskirk brought back a sense of trust between the board and the community, something that is essential to protect a co-op's quality of life and investment.
"Before him, there was no trust," notes Lehr, who when he walks through the complex these days hears from residents who are happy because they are on a good financial path. "People take to Tom quickly. He knows the right thing to say at the right time and makes people feel good about themselves."
Van Buskirk credits strategic thinking and good people skills as prerequisites for a successful leader. "You have to be able to lay out a plan and see the long term. You have to be open, willing to communicate and admit when something is wrong. You speak to each group and tell them how your plan will benefit them. You can't please everybody but you can try as hard as you can."