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The Image Game

Read this article in the digital edition.

It was certainly an odd situation, to say the least. The board at 127 West 96th Street had accomplished a great deal during its time in office. The budget at the 128-unit co-op was balanced, a new roof had been installed, maintenance was reasonable, and the building itself was in good physical shape.

Yet the board was not very popular.

In fact, the annual shareholder meetings were, as one participant recalls, “tense” affairs at which residents seemed unhappy even though they had little about which to complain. One owner recalls that she was actually “a little scared of the board,” acknowledging that the directors appeared to be “shadowy figures” to her.

Those feelings and others all came to the surface when the board decided to redo the lobby and hallways in 2005.

The cold atmosphere suddenly got hot.

One group of shareholders vociferously opposed the design choices and started a campaign that accused the board of ruling imperiously without concern for the residents’ feelings. “There was this small faction that didn’t like the lobby, and they were able to make it into this whole ‘imperious board’ thing,” recalls Kate Chamberlain, the current board president. “There was a lot of animosity and finger-pointing,” adds Rob Mecarini, who joined the board about three years ago.

But it wasn’t just outside agitators. The board itself was split. So split, in fact, that four of the seven directors stepped down rather than carry on. “There were a lot of hurt feelings from the members of the design committee,” says Chamberlain, adding that they felt the time and energy they had devoted to the redesign were unappreciated. A few months later, a fifth, longtime member stepped down for unrelated reasons.

So, enter the newbies. “You’re looking at five new people on the board,” Chamberlain notes. “By November of 2005 we only had two people who had any experience. We were trying to re-invent the wheel.”

The newcomers had a lot more than the lobby to consider. They had to hit the ground running, not only re-inventing the wheel but changing the entire image of the board itself. That was no small task.

Spinning Real

So what did the new, novice board do? If, as Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” the board directors had to search for their own route to building happiness – and “communication” and “transparency” were the watchwords they used. The new board decided that the problems with the old board did not stem from anyone’s ineptitude or greed but from a general approach. It was a question of “spinning the information,” says Chamberlain. “They didn’t promote themselves to the shareholders,” and that made them seem out of touch and, perhaps, even a tad arrogant.

The new board started with the idea of connecting with the owners, of dispersing the sense of hostility that had grown up like moss on a garden wall. The first step was to put in place a shareholder liaison: a board member who could connect one-on-one with shareholders who had complaints. There was one person on the board “who was really good with people,” says Chamberlain. His name was Steve Brown.

“We realized that there were some people on the board who were more financially oriented but not necessarily good at handling communication, and I’m probably one of the more tactful board members,” Brown observes. “Initially, it was tough. I was the recipient of all the negative stuff. But I felt that if I could convince the shareholders that there was an outlet by which their voices would be heard that would change the feeling of what was going on in the building.”

Wasn’t that the manager’s job? Well, yes and no. The manager can be very busy, says Ruth Shoenthal, a current board member who worked for years as a managing agent (but not at 127 West 96th). When she worked as an agent at other properties, Shoenthal recalls, “there were always people who, if they didn’t like the answer they were getting, would call you and call you, and try to change it. So, what happens then is that a managing agent cannot deal with it beyond that point; it really falls to the board to deal with that person who has issues like that.”

Having a shareholder liaison meant that someone who was both tactful and present (i.e., he lived there) could interact immediately with residents. Because he was an owner in the property, he had more of a stake in the building than the manager -– and he could relate to the residents’ concerns more readily.

In addition, he would actually visit them. That both gave them a chance to vent and also made them feel that someone was listening. Brown adds that, psychologically, just the idea that he was paying attention made a big difference. Even if he didn’t have an answer, the fact that the board was listening was critical. Supplementing that was the “Board Box,” a drop box – and later an e-mail address – where residents could write notes to the board about something that bothered them.

News You Can Use

At the same time, the board was launching the four-color, printed 127 West 96th Street Newsletter, a four-page collection of news, both soft and hard, about events in the building and the surrounding community. It was all done with a light touch and a spirit of fun by Carolyn Hahn and Kate Chamberlain. Hahn has written and edited it from the beginning, while Chamberlain, who has lived at the property since 1998 and joined the board in 2005, designs it. The glossy document has everything from news items like “The Board Update,” about current decisions and initiatives, to lighter pieces like “The Whole Story on Whole Foods” (about the supermarket chain opening a branch nearby) and “Trashed: Top Ten Recycling Persons Not to Be.”

With its breezy, informative style, the quarterly newsletter did a lot to make the community feel like, well, a community. Shareholders felt as though they were part of something, and both women feel pride in their accomplishment, with Hahn reporting that many residents have asked her why she can’t produce the newsletter more frequently.

“Last year,” says Chamberlain, “there was a potential strike by all the porters and doormen. That’s where something like the newsletter can come in very handy. We used it to explain the potential of the strike, how this would affect our building, and some of the things you could do. Then we would also follow up with official memos. And we did very well getting people to sign up for volunteer duty [in the event of a strike]. It brought a [cohesion] and a sense of being neighbors. It’s a great way of building a more neighborly feeling. With the old board, there wasn’t a feeling – rather than just sending out a memo, which might sound patronizing. In the newsletter it’s just a reminder and might be done in a funny or nice way.”

Once More With Feeling

Besides the liaison and the newsletter, the board established a second, unofficial shareholder meeting, where the directors could update the residents on ongoing projects and also take the pulse of the building. The gathering came about by accident: one year, the annual meeting was called but did not achieve a quorum. Instead of canceling the session, the board members held an unofficial get-together and found the give-and-take – the plain speaking without the necessity of conducting any official business – was useful and helped them plan for the future. “We could say, ‘We’re thinking of a maintenance increase,’ rather than hitting them with it, and they would have a chance to express their concerns and prepare for it financially,” says Brown, the shareholder liaison. “Again, more communication.”

So, six months after that, the fluke became official policy, as the board convened the first of its mid-year informational gatherings. That first meeting is now held in the spring and the official, annual shareholders meeting is in September. “By moving it to the fall,” says Chamberlain, “we have a better feel for whether we have to raise it. In spring, we can’t say for certain what the price of oil will be in the fall.”

Finally, the board sends out detailed memos and letters on ongoing projects to keep the shareholders in the loop. For instance, when the board was upgrading the building laundry rooms to make the water use more efficient, bigger machines and higher fees were predicted. The board sent out memos explaining that eventuality, and it also set up an area in the lobby where residents could contribute ideas to the design. “We learned from the interior renovation [we had done] that people like to have decision-making [input] in terms of what their building looks like,” Brown says. “So, when we re-did the laundry room – painted it and tiled it – we left out samples in a box, told people to let us know what they liked. So no one could say that we acted unilaterally.”

The result? “There’s very little animosity these days at the shareholder meetings,” Mecarini, the board member, notes. “There are one or two people who raise concerns, they are addressed, and we move on. As opposed to what happened in the past: there would be a lot of tension and a confrontational approach between the board and the shareholders. Our approach now is that we are here to serve the shareholders, and they should know what and why we’re doing what we’re doing. I think that makes tough decisions easier to take.”

Keeping everyone in the loop is the lesson of the remarkable turnaround at 127 West 96th Street. For, as Chamberlain puts it: “The former board didn’t do anything evil or bad; they just came across as obnoxious. The imperious board actually did a good job. They just didn’t know how to sell themselves.”

And in America – land of the commercial and home of the spin – selling yourself is the name of the game. In fact, selling, like a diamond, is forever.

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