Donna Laporte

vangelists are rarely short on words. Alan Rosenberg is no exception. He passionately spreads the word about one of the hardest jobs in the world: being a director on a condo board. "The board of directors faces the world's toughest shareholders: their neighbours," Rosenberg says.

Often unpaid, under-appreciated and in charge of million-dollar budgets, boards are frequently made up of people who are terrific at their day jobs — accountants, lawyers and human resource professionals, for example — but inexperienced in condominium issues.

Sometimes there's a language barrier. Add to that the legal responsibilities incumbent upon them, and it's quite a mix. Rosenberg knows what it's like. He not only has done two stints on his own condo board (the past six years as treasurer), he has spent about 30 years dealing with condo management issues, the bulk of the time with Del Property Management Inc., one of Canada's largest condo management firms.

Rosenberg, a chartered accountant by training, began his stint with Del as supervisor of the accounting department, but found he "grew a permanent cauliflower ear" talking to condo directors every day. After six months, he carved his own niche as liaison with boards. He began bridging the gap between the developer (Tridel) and the management arm by chairing turnover meetings, at which the developer turns over control of a building to the newly elected board of directors. His role evolved further as the new condos aged.

Under contract to advise boards, he now needed to recommend engineering firms for technical audits. Yet, those firms would be taking potshots at the building. How could he serve two masters?

He approached Leo Del Zotto, one of Tridel's owners, and explained his discomfort, prepared to walk away. To his credit, Rosenberg says, Del Zotto told him to do what he must (that is, work on behalf of the owners), but to give Tridel the chance to solve problems as they arose. "That's what made it possible to wear the two hats," says Rosenberg, who eventually became a vice-president at Del.

When the condo development in which he lived needed help paring down its management structure — three separate firms managed three condos that share facilities — Rosenberg agreed to offer his expertise. In the end, a fourth firm was chosen to shepherd all three buildings.

Realizing there was a void to fill, he struck out on his own in April, 1994, launching A.R.Consulting. Eight years later, the 56-year-old has tackled some tough jobs: consolidating condo corporations, "divorcing" one condo from another, helping oust management companies while conducting searches for new ones and nurturing boards that have just gotten their wings. He is still shocked that, in some cases, the tail wags the dog. Boards march to the manager's drummer, waiting to be told what to do. They don't realize they're the bosses. He's heard it all, from managers shirking their responsibilities, not communicating with boards, to egregious violations of duties.

Examples? He has a file full: · The management agreement calls for 40 hours of service a week. "We get 10," one board says. · Problems have gone unresolved for three months and a board at another building feels abandoned. · "We've had seven managers in three years. Why?" asks a third board. · One board hasn't seen financial statements in four months. (They should get monthly statements.) · Maintenance cheques haven't been deposited in the bank for several months. · The same piece of equipment has been repaired — and essentially been paid for again and again — four times in three months. Where's the warranty? Who's following up?

A board will often tolerate a bad management company because they have neither the time nor the expertise to sort through the 200 to 250 firms who call themselves condo management companies, "many of which are no such thing," Rosenberg says. Don't get him wrong, he knows of individual managers who are "really heroic," who work late, take abuse from residents and who aren't paid what they're worth, considering the wealth of disciplines in which they are supposed to be proficient.

Consider this: The manager has to be comfortable with finance, legislation, collections, mechanics, resolving disputes and communication. He also must possess good organizational skills. "Who has all these disciplines?" Rosenberg asks. "I know of absolute firecrackers in finance that can't turn a monkey wrench."

There's more to a management routine than what an on-site manager does, Rosenberg says. "If the manager could provide all this there would only be managers and not management companies."

Unfortunately, the industry as a whole doesn't get it, he says. They don't know what it's like to get on an elevator and face a neighbour who wonders why something isn't fixed, why the halls are shabby, when the garage repairs are going to be done.

He says he's out to bridge the gap between what the boards need and the industry provides.

Condo management "is as new as computers and space travel," he says. It is not yet a profession, like law or medicine. There's no history upon which to draw, no accreditation, no formal procedures. Just ask Helga Duever, vice-president of The Birches at Lawrence and Midland Aves. When two board members resigned earlier this year, she was appointed along with another member, joining three neophyte directors elected in November, 2001. "We inherited a mess," says Duever, who has lived in the 225-unit building since 1975. Cheques were missing and there was no documentation for major repairs to the garage, supposedly carried out about 12 years ago (it's leaking again). She says former board members told her they didn't remember who did the repairs, but that the records were in the office. No records could be found. The reserve fund isn't up to snuff, she says, and the pool is closed because of safety concerns.

Duever and another board member attended a seminar this winter at the Canadian Condominium Institute, where Rosenberg was giving a talk on mediation. (He's a former CCI president and the executive director of the Condominium Dispute Resolution Centre.) Once they read his bio, they begged him to help. They wanted to rid themselves of their property management company, which had replaced one let go in March, 2001.

"We are very happy" with the company Rosenberg helped them choose, Duever says. "We like the open approach."

Rosenberg is still involved, assisting with technicalities pertaining to the management agreement.

More mundane circumstances sometimes force change, too. A property manager gets promoted; the company can't find someone to take over. That's what Carlton-on-the-Park faced. Donna Brown, vice-president of the 120-suite building at Jarvis and Carlton Sts., says their small management company gave notice the first working day of 2001. The contract was to end March 31, so the clock was ticking. Rosenberg helped them find another company.

Finding the right fit for a site manager was tougher. There's a dearth of experienced property managers to fill the needs of Toronto's burgeoning condo market. With the board's agreement, the company placed a young, inexperienced manager, whom it agreed to mentor. After 18 months, "he's done a wonderful job in some respects," but has fallen short in others, says Brown, herself a human resources specialist with the Ontario government. So Rosenberg has been invited back to aid in the selection of a new manager. "We're not really throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Brown says. "It's time to change the bathwater."

When Rosenberg is hired, he interviews the board to assess their needs, inspects the property, reads the declaration and bylaws along with minutes of board meetings, which often hold a wealth of information. He then discusses their objectives, tells them what to expect from a management company and tailors the search to their particular needs. He teaches them how to assess a management company, according to eight criteria: accountability (management serves the board, not the other way around); cost savings (bulk buying); communications with the board and with residents; site operations; safety aspects; financial issues; condo expertise (how to enforce bylaws, knowledge of the new Condo Act); resources (support for the site manager).

Rosenberg invites five or six management companies to inspect the property, send promotional literature, financial statements, and information on management format and inspection protocol. He also asks who audits their work, and solicits references from directors at similar properties. (To be fair, he suggests current management participate, but sometimes the condo board is firm: They want a divorce.)

He'll inspect the properties the companies currently manage and speak to adjoining condos and former clients. Afterward, he provides a detailed summary of his findings.

When bids come in, he compares the potential candidates. The board then cuts the list down to three. Rosenberg draws up a questionnaire tailored to the condominium's needs. He controls the interviews, which run one to 1 1/2 hours, followed by the candidates' 15-minute summations. This avoids what one director calls the traditional "dog-and-pony show," where a slick sales pitch may sway a board. In turn, firms know they're being assessed fairly, according to the same criteria, Rosenberg says. Afterward, he provides a detailed analysis of the interviewees.

Once the board chooses a firm, he helps draw up a management agreement, one that is fair to both parties. Rosenberg stays involved for the first two months of the new firm's engagement. What does all this cost, you ask? For a typical 200-suite building, the cost is about ½% to 1% of their budget. Expect a minimum fee of $5,000, a maximum of about $7,500 to $8,000 (say three condo corporations, 900 units total). Rosenberg says a condo will recover its fee three to five times over in the first year from a more efficient operation.

When he's not spreading the word, Rosenberg indulges his other passions, for vintage films and music. He sings with the Avenue Road Arts School, and coaches in mediation skills workshops at a downtown Toronto law firm.

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