Mastering Your Management Partnership Going Beyond the Contract

Mastering Your Management Partnership

Management companies that work with community associations typically begin their working relationship by negotiating a contract. The parties involved do their best to carefully craft an agreement and the terms of service that will cover every task and duty that the association board expects its management firm to do. Management, in turn, identifies the roles for which board members or other vendors are responsible. But the one fact that all managers seem to agree on is that every association is different and no contract can anticipate everything. The relationship that management companies forge with their association boards and trustees constantly evolves, sometimes in unexpected directions, and responsibilities may shift. Board members might not be aware of who’s supposed to do what, and may be surprised to find out what managers actually do—sometimes beyond the scope of their contracts.

It may take time for board members to become familiar with the skills of a new management firm, and learn to trust them to do their job. Managers agree that volunteer positions on the board would then be much easier. “Boards should rely more on our expertise,” states Richard Stern, president and founder of Sutton Management in North Andover, Massachusetts. This goes both ways, however. “People on the board also have skills and we try to take advantage of that” when trustees have backgrounds in finance, insurance or construction specialties. “Sometimes we can engage (certain) experts on the board, as advisors.”

One drawback, he points out, is that “sometimes people get on the board for the wrong reasons. Trustees should take courses—like from CAI—to learn what their role really is. This is important because all it takes is one person on the board to make everyone miserable if they don’t get their way.”

Then there’s the issue of trustees making their management company miserable. “A management-trustee relationship is like a marriage, and when it’s not working out, maybe it’s just not going to happen. For a board, switching to a new management company is a last resort.” For Sutton Management, Stern notes, “I’ve only seen it happen about five times in 25 years of business. For us, it may come down to a financial decision, where you’re spending too much time (on an unresolved issue) and it’s going nowhere. Our pricing is based on how much of our time (the board) uses. There have been instances where we declined to take on an association … Sometimes they’re too far gone.”

Usually, the really problematic board members are there to promote personal agendas, Stern points out, adding, “95 percent of the problems (we have) are from five percent of the people.” The solution for board members who continuously hold meetings hostage with their personal issues is straightforward. “We keep it formal and abide by Roberts Rules of Order at meetings,” Stern states. “I like to put together an agenda and get everyone’s input before each meeting. Then, if it’s not on the agenda we’re not going to talk about it, and no one is blind-sided. Also, we insist on no longer than a two-hour meeting, or we charge overtime. That usually keeps everyone on point, and prevents them from getting diverted to unrelated topics.”

Stern reports that some of his client associations have been with his company since it started. He attributes that to a level of trust that forms over time, but admits that certain circumstances can supersede that trust and end the relationship. “We had on association of almost 100 units for about 20 years,” he reports, “but their condo docs called for trustees to serve a one-year term, so every year you had (the potential for) a whole new board. Every decision is really political, since each trustee is always up for an election.” He explains that in one year of new board members, an issue of competitive bidding came up, “and we lost them” as clients. “It’s very unusual to have one-year terms for trustees,” Stern notes, “but to change condo docs you might need to get two-thirds—or whatever—majority vote of unit owners … that’s really hard to do”

Keeping Volunteers

Michael Hogan, CMCA and senior property manager at NAI Plotkin of Springfield, Massachusetts. oversees a variety of residential and commercial condominium properties. He contends that “the two biggest challenges for board members are money—if there are assessments or escalating fees—and communication,” especially, getting all parties to understand each others’ roles. “I find that I have to make trustees aware,” he continues, “of the value of each unit owner. I’ve heard a board member say, ‘Thank you very much for coming,’ to unit owners without giving them enough time… to outline their concerns, or not giving them importance. I have to remind them about whom they are representing.”

Hogan agrees with Stern about resorting to a formal procedure when handling the problem of trustees with personal agendas. “I was at a board meeting for an association of about 100 units that our company had just taken over. I was sitting with the former property manager. The officers were discussing speed bumps and the board president was adamant about getting them installed at a certain stretch of roadway… He was really persistent about it and trying to promote this project for years. Another officer on the board—also strong-willed—was arguing against the idea. I looked at the former manager and asked if he’d ever tried to put a stop to this argument and he said, ‘No… they do that all the time,’ and he returned to checking his email.”

“So,” Hogan continues, “I asked the president to call for a motion… and he looked stunned, but he did it. Then he asked for someone to second the motion, but no one would offer one, so there was no discussion and that was the end of the issue.”

On the other hand, Hogan states, “It’s my job to let unit owners know that the trustees are volunteers; they’re not paid, and they are also unit owners. It seems like a trend in recent years, there has been more of an ‘us and them’ mentality. My challenge is to help trustees and unit owners understand that it’s ultimately their responsibility to approve any changes as a voting body.

“One problem I see, “he continues, “is that condo buyers, especially the younger families, are not getting a good explanation of the condo docs. As managers, it’s our job to educate them about (maintaining) a positive experience with community living, and getting involved… serving on committees. We have some boards with younger members and it’s great—creating a dynamic that all boards should have. I tell all board members that their most difficult task is not balancing finances… but it’s recruiting their own replacements.”

Boards and committees must constantly deal with turnover, and Hogan offers tips on helping boards draw in new volunteers. “When residents call us for services, we’ll ask them to consider serving on the board… and sometimes you have to keep asking. Also, when you welcome new owners, find out their skills. This is all part of educating them in a positive way about their responsibility as unit owners—not just inside their four walls,” but in the larger community as a board or committee volunteer.

“Trustees cannot operate without committees,” which strengthen the connections between boards and unit owners, Hogan says. Without these connections, he adds, “owners get to the point where they don’t trust the board members as people who are working for them.”

“Community residents today demand more transparency and unit owners want to be part of the solutions,” Hogan contends. “Long-term trustees may not realize that they have to be more descriptive of all operations and financials. Unit owners are getting more critical about added assessments… and you have to keep them informed.” This is increasingly difficult, he believes, because it’s harder to develop accurate projections and cost estimates, since “weather patterns have changed, and we’re paying more for things such as wintertime road salt and sand… even gas prices are unpredictable.”

Hogan suggests a Zen-like composure when dealing with unhappy trustees or residents. “You have to tell people, ‘You’re important to me… I want to hear what you have to say and thank you for your input’.”

No Surprises

Bill Kasper is president of Urban Property Management in Boston, and he contends that association boards should be taking advantage of a good management team’s skills and ability to make decisions. “Our goal is to build trust, and over time boards get comfortable with our processes and the decision-making process moves toward management making more decisions. One way I gain trust is to show the board that I do the research on vendors, contractors and products and then link it online, so they can review all the info ahead of time and be prepared to make choices and decisions at a meeting.”

“When trustees are new to the job they may be unfamiliar with their role” he notes. “We’ll try to make it easy for them and clip a section on ‘Roles of the Trustees’ from their condo docs, or from a legal firm’s article, and forward the info. In our role as management, we always try to insulate the board (from complaints or issues that we can handle) because 99 percent of the time they rely on our expertise. But to keep the board ‘in the loop’ on certain situations, we sometimes ‘blind-copy’ them. I try to avoid too many surprises and let them know what I’m doing.”

Kasper agrees with other managers that “our primary means of communication is email” and explains that his associations are mostly urban properties with boards and unit owners who seem especially familiar with—and willing to use--electronic communications. “We still use face-time at meetings, and increasingly, conference calls where we can get everyone to log into an online board meeting” with presentations and graphics right on the computer screen.

“Everybody has their opinion,” Kasper points out, and at any meeting you may have a stubborn participant who won’t let go of a personal gripe. “I just try to be helpful and informative. Luckily,” he adds, “everyone ultimately puts in their vote and respects the process.”    

Marie Auger is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.

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