A tough act to follow

Posted on Thu, 04/01/2021 - 12:30pm

By Neil Warner

Marcel Molins Malibu East is one very fortunate condo association. We are blessed to have had a visionary leader who committed his time and energy, as well as his formidable skills, toward the goal of making this Association the best it could be. Remarkably, he did it for more than 30 years.

When Marcel Molins was elected Board president in 1986, nobody thought he would continue to hold the position into the 2020s. Probably not even Marcel. When he passed away at home on March 1 at age 84, Malibu East lost its most ardent proponent.

When I first joined the Board in 2002, I was familiar with Marcel in his role as Board president, having attended a number of Board meetings. Or so I thought. Yes, he conducted the monthly meetings in an even-handed way, striving to allow everyone to weigh in on the issue at hand. But there was so much more that he did behind the scenes that I wasn’t aware of.

Marcel worked with many different property managers at Malibu East, including our current manager, Violette Deschamps, since November 2012. As a hands-on president, it wasn’t unusual for him to communicate with the manager on a daily basis.

Like most large condo associations, Malibu East enters into contracts with a wide variety of vendors, and those contracts must be reviewed to protect the Association. Rather than hiring a law firm to review each contract, at a not inconsequential cost, Marcel, whenever practical, handled the review himself during his free time at home. As a result, he saved our owners an incalculable sum.

While I was a member of the Board and the Rules Committee, Marcel spent countless hours in the various rewrites of the Malibu East Rules and Regulations, as did several other active members of the committee. He rarely missed a meeting. We reviewed every rule in a document that exceeded 40 pages single-spaced. His legal expertise was useful in crafting rules that would deal with various contingencies and interpretations.

What was amazing to me, though, was Marcel’s understanding of the nuances of the English language. As a native of the Catalonia region of Spain, English wasn’t his native language, or even his second one. (He spoke seven languages.) Yet, his understanding of English surpassed that of many native-born Americans.

I fondly recall his ability to differentiate between the use of “empathic” as opposed to “empathetic,” two words with basically the same meaning. As a professional editor most of my life, I told him that he had taught me something about the English vocabulary. His response: “The English language is fantastic.”

American idioms could trip him up, but he was a fine editor when it came to choosing the best possible words to convey a thought.

Marcel had a vision for this building, too. Whenever he was asked about a new use for a room, or how it might be reconfigured to better serve its purpose, he typically had an answer at the ready. It was clear he had spent many hours thinking about Malibu East and how it could be improved.

As a member of the Sports Committee, I was involved in discussions that led to the Fitness Room and the Billiard Room switching locations on the fourth floor in 2009. Marcel suggested that the north wall of the new Fitness Room be replaced with a floor-to-ceiling window, brightening the room and giving residents the benefit of looking at our magnificent lakefront while exercising. He believed that this enhancement would draw more residents to the room, and he was right.

Marcel also wanted to transfer the wood paneling on the walls of the Billiard Room to its new location. The paneling once graced the U.S. Court of Appeals building downtown and had been on the walls here for about 38 years, leaving it in a fragile condition. Expert carpenter Vladimir Ivanovic was able to remove the paneling and reinstall it in the new location while preserving most of it, making for a cozy room. Again, thanks to Marcel’s vision.

When I succeeded Jack Winans as the Dialogue editor in 2011, Marcel was very supportive of me and the newsletter staff. He entrusted us with considerable independence, and he didn’t interfere with our operation unless he was forced to. Whenever I asked him for his judgment about an editorial matter, he would take the time to consider it and then offer an opinion, which was always well thought out.

Financial stability was a priority for Marcel, as I witnessed firsthand, particularly during my tenure as treasurer. When the Finance Committee would meet to discuss the upcoming year’s budget, we would begin with a projected assessment level, usually reflecting the past year’s change in the Consumer Price Index. After each line item had been reviewed and the bottom line was in view, the question was always the same: By how much should we increase the assessments, if at all, in order to maintain the Association’s future financial stability without creating an undue burden on the owners?

Marcel’s philosophy was that small assessment increases similar to the CPI’s were the best way to build up the Reserve Fund without creating a hardship for owners. For many years Marcel was supported in his budgetary objective by many different boards and especially by the late Richard Strauss, a private investment adviser who served as a director for 24 years, with the budget being a particular area of focus. Both of these men were excellent mentors for a treasurer with a limited background in finance.

Marcel and Richard’s philosophy led to a period of unparalleled financial stability at Malibu East.

Marcel was a partner at one of the top international law firms, Baker McKenzie, but because of his humility, he rarely mentioned it in the context of Malibu East business. He was named a partner after only four years at the firm and, for a time in the 1990s, was the managing partner of its Chicago office. To say he was an accomplished man would be an understatement.

Marcel and Martina, his wife of nearly 58 years, raised their two children, Tom and Nicole, at Malibu East. After the children moved out, Martina, also a licensed attorney, devoted much of her life to supporting Marcel and working on behalf of our owners. She has served on the Board for many years, including a former stint as Admissions Committee chair, and has done considerable pro bono work on behalf of the Association.

Shortly after he became president, Marcel wrote a letter to the owners as published in the December 1986 Dialogue. In it, he stressed how important it was that the president be transparent and share all information about the building with the other owners. He said that “criticism – preferably positive, but also negative – will always be welcomed.” He added that greater participation by residents in condo affairs would create “an environment which is not merely a group of people, but a community of neighbors and friends.”

That is what Marcel worked tirelessly to create: a community of neighbors and friends.

He had the temperament to handle all sorts of situations, as I saw when he defused several potentially volatile scenes. His leadership style taught me that my first impulse in an interaction with another person often isn’t the best course of action.

Most of all, Marcel was a man of principle, avoiding even a hint of favoritism or conflict of interest.

As became obvious to me later, I really didn’t know Marcel before I joined the Board. Although his leadership of the Board was admirable, watching him in action made me realize that what he contributed behind the scenes was an attribute that was even more valuable.

In the past few years, health issues began to take a toll on his body, but his mind remained unusually sharp for a man in his 80s.

Before he submitted his candidate form for the Board election last September, Marcel shocked me when he asked whether I thought he should run for reelection. He was obviously concerned about his health and his ability to preside over the Board under the circumstances – without actually saying that to me. Although I told him that he had earned the right to relax at home after so many years of service, I also said that the Board, and the Association, would benefit as much as ever from his continued presence. Deep down, I didn’t believe he would ever be happy sitting idly at home.

Many of us will miss Marcel dearly. I’m thankful I had an opportunity to work with him and observe his leadership, as well as getting to know the man. His legacy will have a lasting impact.

He will be a tough act to follow.

To read a very informative obituary about his life, go to bit.ly/mecax7. The family plans to hold a memorial service in the coming months when the conditions are safe for groups to assemble.

If any resident wishes to share a personal perspective about Marcel for publication in the Dialogue, please submit it to Dialogue@MalibuEast.org. We will publish any submissions in the May issue, but we reserve the right to edit such comments or to reject them in their entirety.