Park Tower Profile
by Sheldon Atovsky
A portion of the following interview was published in the June-August 2015 TowerTalk. What follows is a transcript of the complete interview. NSM Committee member Sheldon Atovsky was the interviewer.
I met with Tim Patricio, Property Manager of Park Tower Condominium Association, on Thursday, April 9th, for a wide-ranging and generous, 2-hour interview, in the Conference Room of our Management Office. We spoke candidly and honestly. Here follows much of that interview. I confess, before you read the interview, that I am a fan of Tim’s and am grateful that he is our property manager. I think he does a super job.
When I entered the office Tim was meeting with our plumber, Louis Mezzano, and maintenance staff member, Matthew Brown. Amir Cobalovic and Marlon Dacres, assistant managers, were busy with memos, conferring back and forth. Idriz Durmic, from our maintenance staff, had just left. Suddenly everyone was conferring with Tim. This was a typical moment of constant activity that never lets up and keeps our building buzzing and our management staff on-the-go. Tim was in the middle of deferring answering hundreds of emails that had piled-up after he took time off to move and he was deferring answering them until he finished preparing the packets for the upcoming board meeting.
Tower Talk (TT): (The recorder was not turned on in time to catch Tim from the beginning.). . . . .that’s part of what I’ve wanted to address: you having hundreds of emails piled up and having to prioritize them and train people what to do with them because no one knows what to do with them except you. Do you want to go on with what you are saying there?
Tim Patricio (TP): After I’ve been taking several days off to move and to visit with my sister, who came into town with my nieces who I haven’t seen in a year-and-a-half. You know I had to admit that I had a life outside of work and to prioritize that. You know your management staff has lives too. That’s how it’s been for the past few days. I just returned yesterday for the first full day and the whole day was spent working on the board packet for Monday night [April 13th], the full day. And that was another day I didn’t do emails, literally, and as I was working, Outlook [email software utilized by Draper & Kramer], pops up on my screen each time I get a new email so I can see. So I’m typing the board report and the email poppin’ up and I’m like, “should I respond to that or not?” But then I’ve got to think, if I respond to this one I’ve got a hundred and some pending. I had 113 pending when I left work last night and now I have over 150 that I have to get to today. I have to get to today! But there’s a board meeting Monday and that’s the priority. And stuff does come in. You know I was waiting for emails related to projects on that board report. So I am keeping an eye on things as they come in but I can only do so much in 8 hours.
[Note: Tim subsequently received a report from D&K that in a 30-day period he sends about 1000 emails and receives almost 1200. He observed, “Imagine 30 years ago, the difference in productivity. Or put it in terms of regular mail – getting 1200 pieces of actual mail and sending over 1000 pieces of mail. It is mind boggling”.]
TT: Do you spend more than 8 hours once in a while?
TP: Uh, yeh, I’m being nice. I don’t want to sound like too much of a grump. Pretty much, 90% of the time, I’m here for more than 8 hours a day. And then, especially recently, weekends as well. Easter Sunday I did the weekly email because it was the only time I could find and with my 3 year old niece sitting in my lap. But that’s something the residents have become to depend on so I prioritize that every week. You know I’ve taken a vacation and stopped on Friday and have done that email. The residents’ feedback has been so positive and some folks are sending me emails, when I’m late, “where is it, you didn’t send your email yet.” Plus I like to think that that helps with my own job security. If so many people depend on that and see it coming every week and that’s how they get their news about the building, that’s how they know what’s going on. I hear a lot less, especially with the advent of the website [ptcondo.com] and starting to do those emails about 4 years ago. One of the problems is communication. In the past people would complain that the management doesn’t communicate. There were already notices on the bulletin boards but papering the doors with flyers would cost thousands of dollars every time. That’s not just paper but the time to write the flyer and the 4 hours it takes to distribute them to every door. Well now we have the website and email and I like to take advantage of that but it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot. The format I use now in the weekly emails is easier than the one I had before and working with the News & Social Media Committee I try for consistency’s sake to tie in with the appearance and content with the website. Obviously all those links drive people to the website which automatically gives them more information. Again, even if you’re a first-timer and then you finally click on a link then people will really start to see all of the work that management does. [Most of what is reported on the website is work by management and most of the information that is requested to go up onto the website is posted by management.] People can see all of the effort at communication. If people are every wondering what management does, it’s easy to point them to the website to get a good idea although it’s just skimming the surface. Still it’s easy for people to start to understand. I feel it’s important for people to know what they’re spending their money on and that includes the salaries for management.
TT: We’ve lost 3 people (in order of departure, Jacqui Smith, Jenny Garcia, and Mavis Mathers), everyone but you, out of the office within a 5 month period. PTCA also lost 11 years of its history with the departure of Mavis Mathers. I presume this has been stressful for you. Do you care to discuss this? Do you have a plan to avoid the repetition of this situation? Why did you stay and not go?
TP: I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s been stressful because it has. Particularly after Mavis left. To get someone really up and running in Jacqui’s old job, now filled by Marlon, takes 6 months to a year to get that person exposed to everything that needs to be paid attention to. Each of these positions is cyclical in nature in one respect or another. Everything ties back to the budget which covers a fiscal year. Even things that Marlon does, including the garage and the health club, all tie into the budget. There are cyclical things that need to get done and to remember to do, e.g., you need to remember to schedule the power washing. You need to know what things to watch for, e.g., events, maintenance issues or problems that occur regularly that you have to make a note of for the budget for the next fiscal year. To have at least minimum exposure to all of these things it takes a year to properly train.
We’re all still learning things. New things happen every day. Even if I work here for 30 years there will be something new every day. Every day is different. But just to have the exposure to have your own expectations as a human being, everything ties into that budget. And that’s an annual thing. For Amir’s position it’s that at some higher exponent that I can’t even measure. Mavis got to a point where she could hand me the proposed budget in August. She would just draft it up and say, “OK, Tim, I’ve got the shell done.” And each year she was working on it that shell became more and more detailed. She knew more and more detail and nuances and things that I expected, that the association expected, that the board expected, and that the budget committee members expected. And when there are some of the same people on the board or on a committee for more than a year then we know what questions to expect from them and work to have those answers ready for them at the beginning of the process. Mavis got to the point where she could hand me that budget and I could simply be proofreading it. There’s certainly a lot of the macro-type projects that I would simply have to infuse into it and I did a ton of research on things like inflation, interest rates, material costs (one thing I keep my eye on is copper prices since we have a multi-year project of replacing riser pipes). The micro attention to detail she had, getting that document ready each August, the more time I would have to spend on things like copper prices and things that could actually save us money one way or another. A lot of the thanks I get for doing the boiler projects, which I have no doubt have saved double or triple the amount of gas we would have used otherwise, especially during the Polar Vortex last year, goes to Mavis because a lot of the time, where she progressed in her job, afforded me the extra time that managers at other buildings don’t get to pay attention to such things and to look for things like that and to be more pro-active. That’s one of the things where I’m at right now. I’m really struggling and a lot of my stress is all of a sudden it feels not only that the breaks were put on when we were going 60 mph but the emergency breaks were pushed all at the same time and I have to struggle and micro-manage and I’m going to have to for the next year or two to be able to get especially Marlon and Amir up-to-speed. And I won’t be able to do a lot of the things that I’ve become accustomed to be able to doing, the value added stuff that I’ve been able to do. That’s the biggest obstacle, the biggest disappointment for me.
And why wouldn’t I leave too? This is just another challenge and I believe we can get back to that point. I believe that I have found good people. And with the type of work that has to get done as long as you find good people you can program them to get them to where you need them to be. They all have different personalities but so do the owners, all the board members, all of the budget committee people. Every person we deal with has a different personality and so I kind of look at it as at least I get to choose these guys. (laughter) That’s no offense to anyone. No matter who gets elected to the board. Things might shift politically. My needle will have to move if the owners choose new board members but I’m fortunate enough to have the trust with the current board that I was able to choose my own people, interview them myself and hire them. And the board just said, “these seem like nice people, thanks.” And it seemed pretty unanimous, which is rare.
So, I don’t want to go anywhere. I like living in this neighborhood. I moved up here [in 2010] to be closer to the building. I felt that was important in case an emergency happened. And not 2 weeks within moving up here we had that first fire and I was able to walk over here in my pajamas. It was like the universe aligned right at the right moment and I was able to be here.
So even though it’s stressful, I’m working as hard as I can to get back to that point where I can do more of what I enjoy doing, more of the macro-type projects. I like doing research, I like finding things we can do to save money. And not just save money now but also going forward, like the boiler projects. We figured out that we could update our big, tank-sized, 41-year-old boilers, that are well past their useful life, and save a lot of money in future years, prolong the use of our current boilers, and get a lot of the updating project paid for by someone else!
This project was in 2 stages. The first stage involved replacing, in 2012, the original controls on the boilers with digital controls that more efficiently mix natural gas and oxygen and allow for the flue to be closed or open at various degrees rather than completely open or completely closed, thus saving a lot of heat from escaping into the air, whooshing out into space. Stage 2 involved replacing, in 2013, the original burners with new burners. The nodules on the old burners were completely gone just from age. [Tim starts to draw diagrams of what the burners look like and the detail of how the mouth of each burner has several nodules and how each nodule functions. He’s getting very excited about this.]
These replacements allowed PTCA, even during the Polar Vortex of 2014, to operate so efficiently that only one boiler had to be on at a time and only at about 50% capacity. Even someone like Zlatko Pavelic, Assistant Chief Engineer, who’s worked here 15 years, was used to both boilers running. Prior to these updates both boilers had to be on with one working at 100% capacity and the second at, on average, 20-30% of capacity. Additionally, the project qualified for a refund from Peoples Energy at about 50% of the cost of the project.
The prices on natural gas could skyrocket but even when they do we’re still saving money. Our boilers are now just about as efficient as the new, small boilers you can go and buy right now on the market. I always go down there, to the boilers, especially when it’s something like -5 out, to see what’s happening. I see one boiler idling and the other boiler on 20%. It’s just amazing that you can keep 1500 people heated on one boiler. And a big part of that is that flue; it’s holding that heat in so that the water is capturing a lot of that heat that is burning as possible.
TT: You have reported at recent Board Meetings that there has been a significant reduction in the number of unit owners who have not provided proof of liability insurance. This has been a continual problem at Park Tower. PTCA used to fine such unit owners and buy forced insurance for them. Recently Illinois condo law has disallowed the purchase of forced insurance but still we have suddenly had a reduction in the number of unit owners who have not provided proof of insurance. How did this suddenly change?
TP: The board back in 2014 starting preparing for the change in law. We suggested to the board a couple of different ways to deal with this change in the law by which we can’t force a unit owner to buy the part of the insurance which protects them from another uninsured unit owner. At the time the board was debating the issue of the smoke detectors and they decided to apply the same principle to both issues. Ultimately a unit owner is fined for not providing proof of insurance. The fine is usually $100. If the following month there is still no proof provided then the fine doubles to $200. It keeps doubling up to $1000 until proof is provided. The board decided that the lack of insurance is sort of a safety issue and similar to the lack of having a working smoke detector so why don’t we handle the proof of insurance the same way? Then, before she left, one of the last things Mavis did was to distribute initial letters to unit owners without proof of insurance. The letters explained the new policy of fines doubling up to $1000. a month. Suddenly people who for years had not provided proof of insurance did provide proof. Also there are still a handful of banks that have been nonresponsive and that still own foreclosed units. Typically they hand over the fee when they sell the unit, but they don’t like the idea of having to pay $1000 per month plus assessments. So we got, within 60 days, about half the unit owners providing proof of insurance who had not done so before. In the past I’m used to seeing somewhere between 15 and 25 units per month without proof. The worst month I recall was as high as 80. But we’ve never been as low as we are now. Amir is updating that number write now. [9 units were fined in April.] I would imagine it’s below 15.
TT: You have reported at recent Board Meetings that there has been a significant reduction in the number of nonworking smoke detectors in the building. How did this happened?
TP: It started with checking the smoke alarms at the same time that we change filters in the HVAC units. It’s really just one in a long list of items that we check. Last year there was just an incredible number of problematical smoke detectors. It exceeded 200. Many people call promptly after they receive a notice and ask us what they can do. We don’t replace with smoke detectors for which you may change batteries anymore. The code changed very quietly in 2013 but I happened to be reading something online; I just happened upon the ordinance change that went into effect in 2013 that residential smoke detectors need to be the type where you can’t take the battery out when you’re cooking. So we started stocking only the lithium built-in battery ones.
Well it was 200 plus. I went to the board and said that’s a huge number of people that are not protecting themselves and that could be a danger to their neighbors. The board agreed. We sent out friendly reminder letters and there still remained 100 plus after 60 days. I went back to the board and they said to send out less friendly notices. That process started back in July  and it came to a head in December. At that time the board said let’s start fining. There were still 39 units lacking working smoke detectors. These people were fined $100. and if they demonstrated that they had a working smoke detector then their money was returned. This is not just a money grab and the same is true with the insurance. The board is not interested in the money only that the unit owner complies. So after that first $100 fine we went down from 39 to 11. The 11 got the $200 fine. Then it went down to 4 people who got the $400 fine. So it’s down to 4 and probably a couple or all of them have now complied. So it worked exponentially.
TT: How did you develop an interest in property management?
TP: I started out in college in communications and I was on the work-study program for part of my financial aid. I started working for a volunteer service that provided counseling to landlords and tenants. You know, communications, counseling. [Tim’s inflection suggests that there’s an obvious relationship between the 2 fields.] A landlord might call in and say, “My tenant is not paying rent, what do I do?” And we had a script that I would read with what the organization suggested they do. Or a tenant might call in and say, “My sink has been clogged for 2 weeks and my landlord isn’t answering the phone. I can’t get any maintenance, what do I do?” Same response with a script. I did a lot of that counseling but most of the counselors were from the law school and I was in a paid position where I coordinated and scheduled the volunteers. That was my primary responsibility when I first started. Later I changed to bookkeeping and training the new volunteers. The organization sold publications so I was responsible for accounting for the sold publications. Also, I helped to publish and to revise some of the documents.
By virtue of that work there was one little management company that called quite a bit. They used our free resource quite a bit. They did it as a way to avoid legal fees. I frequently helped them. I even went to court in relation to one of their tenants. They had a job opening and they called me up. It started part-time and ended as full-time with benefits and that’s how I got started.
TT: What school were you in?
TP: Michigan State.
TT: In East Lansing?
TT: So you’re originally from Michigan.
TP: No originally from Washington State, from Spokane. My mom was in the military and we did a lot of hop-skotching. I went to high school in Michigan and then to college in Michigan. I started working for this management company for about 5 years. Literally, one day I decided I had had enough of Michigan and I purposely bought the Chicago Tribune for the Employment section. I responded to a couple of ads and a month later I was in Chicago working for Chicagoland Management. About a year-and-a-half later, Draper and Kramer, who had called me a couple of times in response to my applications and I had interviewed with them a couple of times, called me again.
It actually was with Chicagoland Management I managed several small associations. I would drive around to 10 small buildings. There was a board member at one of these that also owned and lived in new association that was converting from the developer to the association with the help of Draper and Kramer. This owner asked Draper and Kramer to hire me to manage the new building, as their first property manager. Draper and Kramer called me again, I interviewed with the new board, and was hired by Draper and Kramer to manage this new building. That was 14 years ago, in 2001.
TT: What is your educational background and specifically your training for this job?
TP: English literature, communications. Even before that I have relevant experience. My mom was in real estate and she owned a Century 21 brokerage. I worked with her helping her set up flyers, booklets. I did this in Publisher in 1990 when computers were just coming into homes. I experimented with computers. I had the first email address in my family and it was on Prodigy. [Tim chuckles.] I didn’t even know what email was. I developed kind of an interest in it just by car pooling with her to showings and open houses. I put up yard signs. So even before the landlord-tenant counseling I was in training as kind of a side job. Then in the summers when I came home from school [college] I would continue to help her more.
I did have a real estate license here because Draper and Kramer, for a number of years before there was a manager’s license, wanted their managers to at least go through some sort of licensing program. So for about 4 years I went through the Illinois Real Estate licensure program and had a sales license. But now we have a manager’s license and it’s mandatory. So now I have the Illinois Community Association Manager License.
TT: What are your thoughts on the interactions between yourself and the board of directors?
TP: Mostly positive. I realize that there can be tough kind of politics and management is often caught in the middle. Under the present board, especially in the past 6 months when management staff started resigning, they’ve really been letting us do our job. I don’t know if that’s the aftermath of the last election which was pretty messy, a lot of fighting and name-calling. I have mostly positive experiences especially outside of board meetings with the individual board members. Also since the Palm lawsuit they’ve really gone from 60 mph to 0 in the emails. That has helped me focus, especially now, on training the new staff. If I have to worry that I’m going to have 12 emails from a board member in the morning I don’t have time for training. And that’s nothing I created or George [Pauly, board president] created or another board member created; Palm created that. It’s made it very difficult for board members to communicate via email and to produce anything out of it. You can’t really give me direction without the agreement of at least 3 board members and if those actions have to be isolated to board meetings [then it’s harder to do]. I do think this is so ridiculous but it is the law and the way we operate. And despite this the conspiracy theories continue even though it’s illegal to have these closed-door decisions and to have email decisions. Legislation is being drafted that will allow the board to ratify motions via email and that’s a good thing for the condo. Condo associations are not black and white. They are organic. You can’t expect a member of the board to be “on” only at a board meeting and not at any other time. Humans don’t work like that. We’re not machines. The building is a living, organic being; it’s not just a corporation; it’s made up of living, organic beings.
I sometimes come across an issue and feel that it would be good to get the board’s input. Sometimes I have to make a decision to go ahead with something and to believe that it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Even George, with whom I obviously work the most, is fond of saying it. But it’s worrisome for me. I have a license and I have to have the license to have my job. And if I do something that violates my license I can lose my job. I can be brought before the licensing board but the fact is the building is not a black and white thing. The board has been really understanding. And certainly the members of the board have differences, arguments and disagreement but in reality on very few issues. They are very supportive that they want the manager to make these decisions, that is to ask the board to approve, at a board meeting, something that I’ve already done.
Recently we had a leak right at the garage entrance and it looked like it was going to be about $15,000 of work. I had first to decide whether this was an emergency or not. It seemed like a grey area to me but still I had to decide. I decided that it was [an emergency] because the next step was that the leaking would damage someone’s vehicle and I would be in the hot seat for not acting. It already was dripping on someone’s car. I alerted the board of the situation, that I had one bid already and that I was going to get only one more. I believed that we had to act quickly, conveyed that to the board and let them know that I would ask their permission at the next board meeting, which would be after we started the repair. No one questioned it and they all supported me. Thankfully the situation resolved itself more easily and we didn’t have to do the work. We were able to isolate the problem and fix it internally and I didn’t have to ask the board to spend the money. We got lucky on that one but something can happen any time now and I’m stuck in the middle having to make that decision when I [am] forced to do something with the board not even discussing it. And that’s my biggest worry, especially since Palm [the judicial decision known as Palm II]. I don’t want to get any board members in trouble by inviting them to discuss board business outside of a meeting. I don’t want to get into trouble for promoting them to do that. I don’t want to get into trouble by overstepping my bounds but I want to protect the building.
I do have a concern about how personal the last election got and some of the things that we read in the letters being sent, the items posted on the various websites, the mailings that went out and some of the statements being made. They really did generate negative feelings. We’re professionals and we’re just doing a job but we’re also human beings. The one mailing that I can point to was a postcard that said,”do you want lower assessments? do you want better customer service?” I can tell you that Mavis, Jacquie and Jenny, when they got a copy of that postcard, they were in here; they were just flabbergasted. They said, “they were doing their best, what do you mean better customer service?” They were very upset. At that point in the election last year I had to bring them all off the cliff. I explained this is just politics. A couple of board members came in and told us not to take any of this personally. I had to step in and confirm this for them and to explain that “we’re not necessarily all going to lose our jobs if the person writing this is elected. We haven’t done anything wrong, we do what we are asked, we’re not perfect but no one ever will be. Don’t take it personally.”
I do think that’s the one thing that rubbed me the wrong way quite a bit, that is last year’s election. I think future board members and candidates for the board should know that we’re doing our best with the direction that is given and with the resources that you give us. You give us the rules and regulations. You give us the budget. You give us the decisions from the board meetings and we implement them. I would never ever call us perfect and I know there’s always room to improve no matter what. Even if you’re the best at what you do there are still things you can do to improve. And we’re always trying to do that. But you have to remember we want the association to succeed. We’re human beings. We want to keep our jobs. We want to make more money ourselves. We want to make you happy. You have to remember that if only 3 board members are in favor of a decision that we have to execute that decision. If the other 2 board members don’t want that to happen, it’s too late. We have to do it. Don’t take it out on us. If you want better customer service . . .
That post card was sent out anonymously. No one’s name was one it. The return address was something like Park Tower Elections. You can draw conclusions based on its content but we don’t really know and we don’t assume. Regardless it’s one thing to attack your neighbor who is always going to live next door to you until they decide to sell. There’s another thing to make the people who work for you uncomfortable in their position. If I think I’m going to be fired tomorrow, why would I do my work today? Why even bother? Why even show up?
We want to show up. We want to do our jobs. Whether you’re trying to get elected or not sometimes positive reinforcement is more helpful to your cause than negative. We’re going to see all of this stuff.
So that’s what I would impart upon board members. Just remember that regardless of how the votes fall, of what the issues are, that we want the association to succeed. And whoever gets elected, management wants to be a part of it and continue to be a part of it. The votes are going to vary. You give us the rules, you give us the budget, you give us the votes and it won’t be perfect. We cannot promise perfection but give us some positive reinforcement. That can do a lot more than the paychecks. We want to go home and feel good about our day too.
TT:What do you especially like about working at Park Tower?
TP: My favorite part is making various innovations, the innovative and proactive projects we’ve been doing. It’s a 40 year old building and I like finding projects, ideas that help to integrate new technology. We can’t have a new building but that’s what I like to do. A close number 2 is working on the website. I think that’s been a highlight for me.
One of the first innovations was the irrigation system. We upgraded that in 2008 so that it’s sensitive to the weather and to how much rain we’re getting. It’s a smart system and is sensitive to the weather and saves water. The LED effort throughout the building. That has chipped away at our electric usage. If you look at the pattern, we are frequently below budget on electric. Our budget is based on a 5-year history and over 5 years we’ve each year chipped away by changing from light fixtures that use a lot of electricity to light fixtures that use a fraction. You don’t think of changing one light bulb as effecting much. But if you switch out 10 today, 10 tomorrow , 10 the next day then in one year that’s a lot.
I think it’s a real credit to the boards over the years to adopt this LED program before LED was a part of the lexicon that we changed out to LEDs in the garage. Now LED bulbs are sold at Target; they’re now common and cost a lot less. Unlike many buildings, and many buildings don’t do what we do, you’ve been on the leading edge. Deciding to spend a lot more on the bulb because, in the end, it will bring savings. That’s really taking a chance and working with understanding. Almost every month I’m below budget on electric. It’s not thousands of dollars below but it’s more than enough to justify spending extra money on something like that. There are thousands of bulbs in this building, 400 and some in the garage, just over 500 hundred in the various mechanical rooms and stairs. There’s a lot.
The other piece of that is motion sensors and that’s a credit to your budget committee. They’ve allowed us a little extra on the electrical and lighting budget to allow us to do small things here and there. There’s one thing Matt Brown has been working on for the past few months in all the rooms and areas that you don’t see. He’s been installing motion sensors. One example is the lunch room. We used to leave the lights on in that room 24 hours a day, every day but the room is probably used in total about 2 hours a day, albeit spread over many hours. The room has about 8 light bulbs. Now you walk in and the light comes on. You’re now saving 22 hours of electricity every day.
Despite the little issues that come up actually infrequently where board members and/or committee members don’t agree, these projects fascinate me. I enjoy doing this. That 22 hours. When I walk by that room I feel proud that I and the association have accomplished saving that electricity. I can go to Harbor Point and I can tell you they don’t have motion sensors!
TT: What do you do on your days off?
TP: Relax . . . I like movies and music. I still D-Jay one night a week . . . I enjoy karaoke. When I started here I worked 3 or 4 times a week but now it’s down to one. I’m starting to feel those hours at night taking their toll. I like to travel and as opposed to saving money for gadgets or a nicer wardrobe I save money to travel. If I haven’t been there, I’d like to go. I would go to the Antarctic. A couple places I’ve gone that I really like are: I went salmon fishing in Alaska. That was awesome. I went on a cruise of the Baltic; St Petersburg, Russia was an amazing experience. I like beach vacations: Aruba, Puerto Vallarta. This year I’m scratching something off my list: Hawaii. I’m looking forward to that. But that’s very expensive so I’m saving money each month. I have a separate fund that’s just for traveling. I live pretty simply and I do save a chunk of money for retirement and a big chunk for travel. I do splurge when I travel. That’s my not-so-guilty pleasure.
TT: What kind of music do you like?
TP: Pop and dance music. I like the earworm music. I’ve always been into Top 40 music.
TT: What do you see as your greatest challenge at Park Tower?
TP: Getting the office staff up-to-speed. They’re making the job easier than I expected though. Yvonne is pretty much up-to-speed. Marlon is not 100% of where he needs to be in knowing every nuance but he’s definitely eager. He’s fast and efficient and pays attention to details. In some ways he’s already exceeding some of my expectations and exceeding the associations expectations as well. Amir came to us fortunately with already having some bookkeeping experience with Draper and Kramer. But there are many things, like budgeting and financial analysis, that he hasn’t done. It’s just going to take him a year or two when there won’t be a day when there isn’t a “deer in headlights” moment. That’s hard. I want to continue to move as I have at a particular speed of making changes, finding out how I can make improvements. It’s really a challenge that I have to slow down; I can’t take it out on the rest of the staff when they really don’t know.
I’ve questioned whether I should move on or not for the good of the building. Part of my analysis is based on whether I can adapt to this situation. They want to please their new boss and I have to allow for their time to learn even though it’s frustrating for me. It’s not their fault. It seems like they understand and that the stress and anxiety that I feel is not their fault. I do my best to make them feel good.
TT: What do you see as Park Tower’s greatest challenges in the next 10 years?
TP: There are three. Number one is the politics. I wouldn’t have said this a year ago but I do after last year’s election. I think that that type of politics is dangerous and once it gets started it’s hard to stop. It can poison and be toxic. This is a five million dollar business and it’s your home. Get real. Get serious. Let’s get down to the business of the association. Once the board votes on something, let’s move on.
The second challenge is keeping your momentum with your budget. Your budget right now is on a very healthy trajectory. When I came on board, in 2007, in the middle of budget season, the budget was calling for $390,000 to be put into the reserves. This building would cost, at that time according to your insurance company, $120,000,000 to replace, on the low end, and you’re only putting away $400,000 a year! [Tim’s inflection suggests that the amount is so small that it’s hard to believe.] It would take how many years, at that rate, to replace the building? The building’s getting older.
People are always asking, “Why are assessments always going up?” Think of the building as a human body. Do your medical bills go up every year or do they go down? Do they ever stay the same? Typically as you age there’s more to maintain. Some of it is cosmetic but in a lot of respects it’s not; it’s necessary. It was clear from that moment that the culture had to change. And your finance committee has just done a fantastic job.
It took a couple of years. In my initial years I went from one line item to another. I cut contracts and other items that were obvious to me and we were able to save money out of the get-go. Now you’re up to 1.4 million a year as a reserve contribution. The closest comparison is Harbor Point which puts away 2 million a year. They have a little bit bigger facility, more square footage and they spend more on cosmetics. Cosmetics is where you don’t have to worry to keep the building standing. So the difference between what they put away every month and what we put away every month is more cosmetics and that’s fine. But you’ve got to be on a trajectory to take care of the boilers, to take care of the mechanicals, to take care of the metal, to take care of the windows, to take care of the roofs. You have to stay on this trajectory and this is the second biggest challenge.
I’ve heard some rumors and we’ve gone online and read these comments, we could be self-managed and save money. Just look at the buildings on Sheridan Road and you can tell which ones are self-managed or are run by these sorts of political views. They’re old and they’re falling apart. You don’t want to get to that place. Grow that reserve so you can keep that trajectory. You’ve never had a special assessment and that’s a fantastic thing and you don’t want to have one. Even if something happened tomorrow, we could go out and get a pretty nice loan at a low interest rate. You have the cash flow right now to deal with things. I can’t think of much that can happen tomorrow that we wouldn’t be able to develop a program to get it paid for without a special assessment. But if you get back to $400,000 and that divided by 12 is $33,334/month. You would have to have a special assessment. A $2,000,000 project comes in tomorrow and we didn’t anticipate it (and that will happen) and you don’t have that cash flow there you’re going to have to do something to get that money.
The third challenge is keeping a good relationship with your staff and that ties into the politics as well. You’ve got to remember when you have all this bluster, like with the last election, it really works against you. It really worries people; we’re human beings. I’m worried about where my next paycheck is going to come. I always am. There’s always that unknown thing that can come up and am I going to get blamed for it? So if I have to worry about who is going to get elected and whether they think we provide poor customer service then I’m going to be focused on doing interviews with other buildings instead of doing my job.
Personally, I’m not worried about that because I think that my management company supports me. And whoever gets elected, even if they completely disagree with every single decision made by the prior board has made for the past 8 years that I’ve been here. I think my track record speaks for itself. Whoever gets elected I’m going to be able to do whatever they want within legal reason. I would be stupid not to point to the 3 people we lost in the past 6 months. That can trickle down or trickle up. I had lots of conversations with the engineers. Our plumber left. He retired but then I got employment verifications for him for another job. Did he really retire? I don’t know. He hated the infighting; it made him nervous. We really haven’t talked about his case that much and I don’t think it was the only thing that encouraged him to leave. Obviously the most visible employees are in the management office.
I’m happy that they all moved on to bigger and better things. Jacqui and Mavis are now their own property managers. Jenny went from an office assistant to an assistant manager. None of them were lateral moves. They all advanced and I can’t fault them.
The challenge is with an improving job market we have to compete with better things on the horizon. Could we or should we have tried to keep Mavis here? We’re not just competing with buildings in our neighborhood but with the Harbor Points, with Lake Point Tower, with the ritzy, new buildings downtown that pay better. They look for experience like Mavis had. Do we just want to be a factory for moving out new managers for downtown? Let’s create a model for here up on the north side. I think we are. That’s one thing I think that your building has gotten under D&K, under this board and under me and my staff. We set an example. I point to the fight with the fire sprinklers. I wanted to lead the way because I firmly believed that would just cripple not just Park Tower but the neighborhood. It would drive down property values.
That’s why you saw me in the news. Draper and Kramer didn’t like it but I did it anyway. I live in one of the buildings up here; it would have been devastating. I really believe that not only for Park Tower but for the building I live in too. If there’s a fire in my house, I know there’s not a sprinkler. I have a working smoke detector. I have fire-proof construction; walls that should last several hours. So be it if my bedroom burns down. The last time the city fire marshal was here, not the one from the state, he was even saying the same thing I was. The sprinklers would cause more damage to your unit and to units next and below you than would the fire in your unit. Even when they come to put out the fire and the firefighters are strategic with how they’re putting out the fire, there’s more damage from the water than the fire and the smoke.
The challenge is not let’s be a factory for managers for other buildings. Let’s retain a good solid staff. And the challenge for the board is to look at the last 6 months and learn a lesson. We need to compete. We’re competing with an improving employment market and ritzy, glam jobs downtown that pay quite a bit much more.
TT: If there’s one thing you could change about yourself what would it be?
TP: [long pause] That’s really hard. I wish I had a better wardrobe. I wish so many things. . . . . To be honest I have like minor ADD. I lose my keys; I lose my wallet. I sometimes can be forgetful. Oh, yeah, there are these little tabs we use to organize the board reports. Mavis used to keep them in her drawer because she mostly prepared these reports except for a few details at the very end. But last month I moved them to my desk because I had to organize those reports [as Mavis was gone]. I couldn’t find these and I was looking through Amir’s desk. Then I returned to my desk and, of course, that’s where they were. I had totally forgotten. I can be forgetful.
TT: If there’s one thing you could change about Park Tower what would it be?
TP: Your bank balance. I wish you had 10 million dollars in the bank so we could keep that assessment a little lower. I would say the money to be serious. It’s been hard because we’ve consistently had those increases and the right now the budget committee has this plan where the increases are going to be 3.5% for some time. I wish I was able to present budgets that didn’t require that every year. I asked Draper and Kramer what was the average increase last year? My supervisor told me it was 5.5%, the average! I know several buildings north of us we’re even higher than that actually. And the culprit was last year’s Polar Vortex, not even this year’s. So many buildings overspent so much on gas that they had to have huge increases this year to compensate. That happened downtown as well. Had you not had several years where you had really low reserve contributions we wouldn’t be talking about consistent assessment increases above the rate of inflation.
But I’d also say there’s one other thing I wish I could change which is the attitude about the assessments. March is always the month we get the calls asking why the assessments went up. I wish I could make everybody automatically understand. The building does not get younger; it gets older. You’re always going to have assessment increases. There’s never going to be a point where it’s going to stop. And if it does, you as a homeowner should be very worried. If you get a board that says we’re going to cut these assessments; we’re going to get rid of the fat, you’re building’s not going to get any younger. And it’s a recipe for disaster. Your assessment percentage never changes, it’s not like a tax rate that’s going up. It’s how much we need to maintain the building that changes and it’s not like we want it to go up but it will. If I could make everyone automatically understand that, it would make a lot of anxiety go away.
TT: You’ve made a lot of recommendations to Park Tower that have saved us money, improved our building and helped to keep our assessments lower than they would be otherwise. Could you rattle that list off?
TP: The big ones are the LEDs, the motion sensors, water savings programs, the cooling tower replacement (once again updating to new technology), the control system for the HVAC, the boiler projects (that was really big). I think over the first 2 or 3 years I was here, if you look at how much we contributed to the reserve in those years and you look at your assessment increase, you’ll see a discrepancy. We jumped pretty quickly from $400,000 to $700,000 to $900,000 and then to a million. We didn’t get those contributions to the reserve through any real programmed savings or assessment increase[; it was by trimming the budget as we went along]. To go up $250,000 that’s a 6 or 7% increase. There’s one year where we had a larger increase [in assessments] but otherwise it was 3% or lower. A lot of the work in the first few years was going contract by contract as they expired, or if I could fire or renegotiate. These were savings made category by category in your budget, by project.
And then other things just like office supplies; changing the culture in the office and it’s one we can control. We went from $6500 in 2009 to $4700 this year. Bringing down that expense is not just because we’re cutting back. We watch for coupons. Your vendors give us pens, pencils, stress balls, pads of paper, post-it notes. All of things bring down our expenses. We use less paper and go electronic as much as we can. One board member doesn’t want any paper at all. Just yesterday that saved 90 pages of paper. That’s been an on-going effort and always will be to keep the operating expenses low. Those jumps in reserve contributions aren’t always by increasing assessments. In those early years, Mavis and I worked with your budget committee to really hammer down your operating expenses. One piece of that was bringing in Prospect Resources, the company that consults on our utilities and does the gas purchasing. The really stabilized and went from a point where what you spent on each year was a roller coaster to now it’s on a country road. That type of stability in your budget is really helpful. Natural gas, especially, can be like a teeter totter.
TT: What do you like best about being the Property Manager at PTCA?
TP: I like being part of the projects that bring positive change and particularly like working on the innovative projects with technology and that do save money. I’ve enjoyed being part of those projects. I enjoy the numbers and to end each year with a surplus. It looks like we’re ending this year with a surplus but that’s because there are some things I can’t control. We have much less bad debt than originally budgeted. We budgeted about $60,000 for bad debt but it ended up being only about $33,000. So that’s $30,000. But any surplus, unless the board decides to return that money, keeps any future assessment lower. So I love the numbers. I love the website and the weekly emails. I enjoy communicating. The positive feedback I’ve received has been really gratifying.
TT: What is your philosophy of life?
TP: That’s changed over the years. Today it’s save as much money as you can so you can enjoy as nice as possible of a vacation. Work, work work. Seriously, avoid drama, do the best that you can even if you’re a garbage man. This actually came from my Dad. He said, “Tim, I don’t care what you do, earn every penny; be the best in that field that you can be.” I’ve kind of lived by that. In terms of condo management, the rules that you give me, the resources you give me, the decisions the board makes, and the budget that’s put in place every year, try to do the best with every single penny that we get. Impart that kind of culture on the team, the janitors to the office staff who process the bills. To make sure we’re squeezing everything we can out of every penny to make it as positive an outcome as possible. Everyday to do the best we can with what we have. Even if we had a zero percent increase in assessment this year, we would do our best to make it work.
TT: Thank you.
Some additional thoughts:
Tim has worked hard and creatively to save PTCA money and to better prepare for the future of our building, our investment, our home. Annually Tim presents an initial budget proposal to the Budget & Finance Committee. The committee reviews the budget in great detail. The savings noted below are found after this process is over and demonstrates how Tim manages the building once he receives the budget approved by the board.
Above, earlier in the interview, Tim explained how he found savings for us by recommending to update our boilers, the controls, flues, burners, and cooling towers, to engage Project Resources to manage our gas purchases, to install LED lighting fixtures and motion sensors, and to install weather sensitive irrigation controls to save water. This latter improvement is especially important now that the City of Chicago increased prices for our water by 25%. Tim also introduced the idea to maintain on staff an in-house plumber which has also saved us money, in comparison to hiring out for our large projects, and provided stability and increased in-house knowledge of how our building systems work.
Tim introduced the process of creating a 10-year budget/plan in order to maintain financial stability for Park Tower and to increase our annual contribution to our reserves. He started “Green Week” and has overseen very large projects, as directed by the board, including the lobby improvement, the plaza/driveway repairs and the riser project.
Tim has led the charge against the State Fire Marshal’s attempts to mandate sprinklers in our older hi-rises. He worked to make sure that we were the first building on North Sheridan to pass the new life safety requirements from the City as he saw how we could save money by doing it early in the City’s process. Additionally, he worked with the City to reduce and/or delete unreasonable requirements. Since the beginning of 2015 many buildings in the city have panicked as they’ve done nothing as the deadline loomed for them to finish their work; Park Tower finished their work in 2013 and has moved on to other important projects.
Tim led the charge on bedbug infestations and, because of his research, has reduced the problem at Park Tower from over 100 cases currently down to 4. He provided information to other properties and worked with Alderman Osterman on the bedbug ordinance created by the City of Chicago.