CCI Vancouver 2016 Strata of the Year | Interview with LMS1816 Harbour House President, Ian Callaway

By Lisa Frey, Gowling WLG (Canada) LLP
Published: November of 2016 | CCI Vancouver Condo News – Fall 2016 Edition

“Run it like a business”, says LMS1816 Harbour House president Ian Callaway, when asked about his council’s philosophy to managing their unique strata corporation. Ian and the rest of the Harbour House councils have employed these techniques on their journey to becoming the CCI Vancouver’s “Strata of the Year”.  

Harbour House is a 22-year-old, 3 building, 82-unit Strata Corporation located in Vancouver near Victoria Drive and adjacent to the Fraser River. It features picturesque river views and a variety of nature-like amenities such as gardens and ponds.

Despite its serene location, Harbour House is no stranger to conflict, as many of us who live in strata corporations can appreciate (writer included). It is Harbour House’s ongoing and evolving work in overcoming these challenges and building a strong community not just in spite of, but because of, its divergent challenges, contributed to its selection as the CCI Vancouver Strata of the Year 2016.

Ian himself, it turns out, actually started his interactions with council by wearing his “owner’s hat”. Within a few weeks of purchasing his unit, Ian discovered a serious, but non-disclosed, plumbing issue. He started asking questions, followed by more questions, many of which challenged the status quo, revealed procedural defects, precipitated retaliations, and ostracized him from the majority of owners. With considerable persistence, Ian prevailed, after which a number of former adversarial owners stated, “Now I understand why you kept asking those questions, and if you hadn’t, we would be in a real mess.” Having gained considerable support with his knowledge, organization, and commitment, Ian was elected to council and shortly thereafter voted in as President.

How does one ensure community harmony through adversity? Despite recognizing that residents range from the “doers” to the “perennial malcontents”, Ian’s advice was to “treat everybody the same”— regardless of someone else’s mindset at any given time. That is also, he hints at, the secret to prevailing over the noisy voices who can take up a disproportionate amount of council’s time over self-serving interests, superfluous issues, and/or personal attacks.

In addition to the people component, central to Harbour House is implementing a business-like philosophy. As part of this practice, Ian also advocates for getting to really know the building, its plans, and its costs—matching the physical to the fiscal!

Like a triangle, the third vital is communications. Ian cites Harbour House’s deft use of communications technology as another way of keeping owners engaged and informed.

For example, he has a separate cell phone to field strata related phone calls and emails (the sheer number of both might shock you - or not). While in the past emails were the “mode-du jour”, now cloud-based technology is also used to share and store relevant documents in a place where council and residents can easily access them.

Whether communicating by e-mail as in the past, or with more recent cloud-based technology, council and residents now have almost immediate access to information about Harbour House. This cuts down on surprises and confers a greater sense of ownership in the strata community. Not only do these modes of communication add to the ease of generating an agenda for the next council meeting, but they can help reduce the frequency of council meetings. After Ian attended a CCI seminar reinforcing the concept of stratas as corporate entities, Ian pointed out to the council that when considering many corporate businesses, those that tend to be “exceptionally communicative” often issue quarterly, rather than monthly, reports. Considering both the time demands of volunteer council members and Harbour House’s detailed and lengthy meeting minutes, the council ratified to hold more detailed quarterly council meetings, and in the intervening months much shorter meetings that might focus more on issues such as Bylaw Infractions and/or other matters requiring timely discussion.

Another creative idea implemented by the Harbour House councils which I particularly admired was erecting twin monitors in the parking garage. The monitors display important information and photos of upcoming projects. This increases transparency, makes residents feel welcome, and subliminally reminds “uninvited” persons that they are in someone’s home.

Another strategy Ian suggests for other strata councils to build greater community spirit and cohesion is to get to know everyone on a face-to-face basis. Whenever possible, Ian strikes up a conversation with other people who live in the strata community -- whenever and wherever he encounters them (even the recycling area!) Not only does such face-to-face recognition add to security—who is and is not a resident—but he also notes that such impromptu chats identify many individuals having talents they can lend to the strata community, even if they don’t have the ability to join the council at a given time.

Last but not least, to take its knowledge even farther, Harbour House’s council is a strong proponent of strata education, also included as a budgetary line-item, based on all council members attending multiple educational opportunities throughout Harbour House’s fiscal year. Encouraged by Ian, council members frequently attend CCI Vancouver seminars and other educational opportunities such as sessions put on by CHOA (Condominium Home Owners Association of BC). If you thoroughly know the “Act”, Ian says, and stay up on best practices, then it makes it much easier to make tough, but objective, decisions when they arise.

Towards the end of our meeting, Ian let it slip that in addition to his busy professional career and moonlighting as a strata president, he had been very active in amateur hockey as a team manager. A repeated analogy Ian uses is to compare a strata corporation to a sports team—both have coaches (council), have players (Owners) making up the team (strata corporation), play within the rules (“the Act” and Bylaws), and are there to win (be financially efficient). One of the key challenges within this team concept is helping owners understand the differences and responsibilities between a strata lot and both limited and common property: “gosh, can’t I change this and why doesn’t the strata pay for it?” Another challenge is getting one resident to understand how their actions impact other residents. As much as Ian promotes a business approach to running a strata, I can’t help but think one or two of his sports team management techniques must come in handy too!

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