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Monday, December 22, 2014
December 2014 View Previous Magazine Features

Words of Wisdom
By: Nena Groskind

The author of this quote is unknown, but its truth is indisputable. We learn from experience. This is one of those trite but true statements that most of us accept at face value. But we decided it was worth exploring more deeply and in more detail. So we asked some industry veterans to tell us what they’ve learned over the years and how those lessons have changed:
• How they advise their association clients;
• How they interact with them;
• How they approach problems; and
• The strategies they use to solve them.

You will see some consistent themes in the responses – the importance of communication, the emphasis on transparency and the need to learn from mistakes, not surprisingly, among them. But reading between the lines, we think you will also see how an evolving industry has changed these professionals, and how their evolution has changed and continues to change the industry.

Robert McBride, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, president of The Dartmouth Group, Inc.

The nature of management. “When I began in this business, I thought association management meant taking care of the property. It’s not about managing property; it’s about managing a community. We’re holding hands. We’re taking care of people.”

Communication. “Technology has changed the way we communicate,” and the way people expect communications to be handled. “This is an instant gratification environment. People expect communication to be instantaneous,” McBride says. Industry consultants talk about the need to manage expectations, for example, by explaining that the company’s policy is to respond to e-mails or texts within 24 hours and McBride says he thought that approach made sense. But he’s learned that “no one cares about your policy.” Telling clients managers will respond within 24 hours won’t change their expectation that managers should respond more quickly, he notes. We have to give our managers the resources they need” to meet clients’ expectations.

Another important communication lesson he’s learned: “You can’t do too much of it,” and you can’t assume people have gotten the message you’ve delivered. “You have to tell people what you’ve done, then tell them again what you told them, and then tell everyone else what you told them. I’m not exaggerating,” he says. “That’s what you have to do.”

“There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.” — Laurence J. Peter

Robert Keegan, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, vice president at R&E Associates, Inc.

The manager’s job. “A community association is a small business, but I learned quickly that the most important part of the job is dealing with people. You have to run the association like a business, but you have to remember when you talk to owners, you are talking about their homes. “

Enforcing the rules. Early in his career, Keegan says, his approach to rules enforcement was to come down quickly and hard on violations. He learned painfully that this is not always the best approach. When an owner complained about a car parked illegally across a driveway, Keegan responded quickly. Although it was not the complaining owner’s driveway that was blocked, Keegan had the offending car towed – only to discover that it belonged to a priest visiting with a family whose child had died. “The quick and easy response” isn’t necessarily the best one, Keegan says. In the rules enforcement area, “you want to try to communicate with owners and work with them if you can. “In most cases, he says, the first communication about a violation “shouldn’t be confrontational.”

Transparency. You didn’t hear much talk about transparency when condominium ownership was a new concept, but you hear a lot about it today, and Keegan is a strong believer in the need for it. Providing 24/7 on-line access to financial information gives board members confidence that association funds are being managed properly, Keegan says, and knowing board member have that access “gives owners a warm, fuzzy sense of security as well.”

“It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning.” — Claude Bernard

C. Jerry Ragosa, president of The Niles Co., Inc. AMO.

Listening to clients. “Even if you’ve been in this business a long time, you don’t have all the answers. It’s important to listen to clients and prospective clients. You can always learn something new from them. ”

Dealing with perceptions. “Clients’ perceptions are their reality.” Ragosa says this may be one of the most important lessons he’s learned. Boards and owners don’t necessarily see what managers see, he explains. “Managers can picture the pipes and wiring behind the sheetrock; owner see only the sheetrock. They don’t know what’s going on behind it. Even if the association is running smoothly, unless we tell them what we’re doing, they won’t necessarily believe it’s being managed well.”

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” — Harry S Truman

David Abel, CMCA, senior manager at First Realty Management.
Learning and listening. “You don’t know everything. And you don’t always know what you don’t know.” That is one reason (though not the only one), Abel emphasizes the value of listening. “Because I’ve done this for so long, most of the time, I know I’m hearing things I’ve heard before. But ‘most’ doesn’t mean all. You really have to listen all the time to be sure you’re hearing what a client is saying, and not what you think you’ve heard before.”

Thinking before acting. Abel says he approaches problems more analytically than he did in his early years as a manager. “I’m more aware of thinking things through – peeling back the layers to get to the core issue. What is it I have to decide? What is my responsibility? Is this my issue?” Those are questions he didn’t always ask. “As managers, we are wired to go out and help. Our instinct is to say, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ But when we do that, we sometimes dig ourselves into a hole by taking on responsibilities that aren’t ours, or by doing things we’re not really qualified to do.”

Mentoring boards. Mentoring a board means telling board members what they need to know, which may not be what they want to hear. “You want to be customer friendly and do what your client wants, but sometimes, you have to tell a board that it is functioning poorly or heading in the wrong direction. I always felt an obligation to do that,” Abel says, but as a younger manager,” I didn’t have the confidence it required.”

“Experience is what you got by not having it when you needed it.” — Unknown

Pat Brawley, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, an industry consultant, whose firm, Central Management & Consulting Services LLC.

Communication is key. “I’ve learned there are people behind those doors. As managers, we get so caught up in solving problems, we often forget to tell people what’s going on around them and we don’t always notice that they don’t understand what we’re telling them. You can’t just tell people a tree is diseased and must be removed,” she says. “You have to anticipate how they will respond once a tree they’ve been looking at for 20 years is gone.”

Managing expectations. Brawley is talking primarily about the expectations of owners who think the response time to e-mail and voice-mail messages should be measured in minutes, if not seconds or nano-seconds. “I can tell people I’ll respond to voice mails between 3 and 5 every day,” she says, “but that only works if I don’t have too many phone calls.” Telling an owner or a board member with a concern, “I’ll get back to you,” can also be problematic, Brawley has found. “You may have other, more pressing priorities,” she says, “but that’s not an excuse anyone wants to hear. How do you tell owners that you’ll get to them later, without conveying the impression that their problems aren’t important or are less important than others? “I’m still learning how to do this,” she says.

Learning to say no. Most managers learn from experience that “we aren’t super heroes. We can’t do everything for everyone. We can’t fix everything. We have to be well-versed in all aspects of association operations,” Brawley says, “but we aren’t jacks of all trades, we are facilitators.” Professional growth (and self-preservation) teach this lesson, Brawley says, but personal growth pushes in the same direction. I have very different attitudes today about work time and personal time and how I want to balance them.” While she will still work nights and weekends when necessary for clients, Brawley says, she “won’t put my personal goals and plans aside” as automatically or as often as she did in the past. “I think I’ve become wiser,” she says. “I’ve learned to value other things.”

“All true learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” — Albert Einstein

Charles Perkins, principal in Perkins & Anctil.
The value of transparency. Experience has taught Perkins that owners who are angry about a board decision will be even angrier if they are surprised by it. “I’ve learned to advise boards to be more open, to communicate more effectively with owners and to use committees, where possible, to get ideas from them.” He’s also learned that it is much easier to effect changes, by galvanizing community support for them. Perkins says he is more likely today to advise boards to spend time explaining initiatives to owners before undertaking them. Even if the board has the authority to act, Perkins says, “it’s a lot better if owners understand and support what they’re doing.”

“Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won't have time to make them all yourself.” — Alfred Sheinwold

Ellen Shapiro, Goodman, Shapiro & Lombardi, LLC.

Dealing with nuance and complexity. In “the early days,” Shapiro says, there weren’t many issues confronting condominiums and there were virtually no court decisions addressing them. The answers to most questions depended on what the condominium documents said or didn’t say. “It was a lot easier to say yes you can or no you can’t.” Today, the courts here and elsewhere have addressed some issues, but they haven’t addressed others. And decisions answering some questions have raised others. “We have to say ‘maybe’ more often than clients want to hear it. “This frustrates my clients and it frustrates me as an attorney.”

Avoiding litigation. “Earlier in her career, Shapiro says, “I tended to be a little more authoritarian,” and more inclined to litigate an issue. Today, when a board asks her to file suit to resolve an issue, she is more likely to encourage them to seek a “common sense” solution and to “bend a little” if possible to resolve the dispute. “That’s going to be better than taking a hard line that ends up with everyone in the community being polarized.”

Learning. “Never assume you know all the answers. There are more ways to think about questions and more ways to resolve conflicts than you could ever imagine.” Shapiro says her experience as a condominium attorney has taught her as much about psychology as about the law. . “It’ the common sense experience about how to resolve issues” that she thinks has been most valuable to her and to her clients.

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” —
Mark Twain

Stephen Marcus, partner, Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks.

The value of pragmatism. Marcus learned one of his most important lessons early in his career, when a developer told him, “The problem with attorneys is, they tell you what you can’t do. We need attorneys who will tell us what we can do.” The developer wasn’t talking specifically about condominium law, “but the advice stuck with me,” Marcus says, and it’s made him focus as much on crafting solutions to problems as on identifying them.

The limits of litigation. Experience has taught Marcus “what works and what doesn’t, what’s practical and humane. I’ve learned that legal solutions aren’t always the best ones.” That lesson came in a now oft-cited case involving elderly condominium owners unable to care for themselves. The association had filed a suit seeking to remove the owners, because their actions (leaving their stove unattended) were creating a safety risk for other residents. Instead, the judge ordered them to lock their stove and hire a cook to prepare their meals. “That got me away from the idea that the first thing you do is sue.” Marcus says. It also taught him that “there has to be room for compassion” in resolving disputes.

Picking your fights. “Every court case teaches a lesson,” Marcus says, and one of those lessons for him has been that it is costly for an association to be the first to litigate an unresolved legal question. “There’s no way to predict the outcome,” he notes. That’s why he advises clients to pick their battles carefully – and to consider the costs. “You can lose these battles as easily as you win,” he notes. If an association spends $200,000 and loses, owners aren’t going to be ecstatic. But if they spend $200,000 and win, owners aren’t going to be all that excited either.”

“Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.” — Minna Antrim

Hugh Shaffer, PCAM, on-site manager at Harbor Towers in downtown Boston.

Different strokes. Communities differ, so the advice managers offer and the strategies they apply must differ as well. “I may have three properties dealing with the same issue at the same time, and recommend completely different approaches to all of them,” Shaffer says. The differences would be based both on the needs of the communities and on the expectations of their boards. “What’s important to one board may not be as important to another. You have to understand the expectations of board members in order to be successful in their eyes. That’s something managers need to understand, Shaffer says, “but I’m not sure it’s something you can learn.”

The importance of attitude. “Condominium management is unique,” Shaffer says, and it takes a certain mind-set to succeed at it. “You’re constantly being redirected and challenged in different ways. If you need to write a to-do-list at the beginning of the day and check off everything on it by day’s end, you might as well just jump off a bridge now, because it’s never going to happen.” His own mindset changed early on, and the change probably counts as his most important lesson.

“I’ve always been something of an optimist,” he says, but at this point, he was feeling “as if I couldn’t do anything right. I had almost decided I couldn’t do this job. I’m not sure what changed, but internally, I learned that I am my own motivator. I’m not being driven by someone outside – I control who I am and how I react.” With that shift in his mind-set, Shaffer says, he was able to concentrate “on the aspects of the job that are really rewarding. You can’t wake up every day asking, ‘how am I going to trudge through it,” Shaffer says. “You have to wake up wondering, ‘how am I going to make a difference.’”

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” — Gandhi

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