Michael Pollack is one of those leaders who transforms the real estate industry. But in the course of impacting that industry, Pollack has also lifted up communities.

“Everyone knows that Michael has an extraordinary talent for transforming (less-than-ideal) retail centers and turning them into attractive properties,” says Johnny Basha, who has known Pollack for 30 years and has had six stores in Pollack retail centers over the course of that time. “What many don’t know about Michael is his commitment to building better communities and helping those less fortunate. As a community leader, he practices social responsibility by investing in people. The world needs more Michael Pollacks.”

LEARN MORE: Michael Pollack helps feed more than 1,000 people for Thanksgiving

Celebrating his 50th year in real estate in 2023, Pollack has been involved in redeveloping about 13 million square feet of space. But unlike other developers, Pollack sees diamonds where others see shattered rocks. He has become known as the “renovation king” by taking properties that have fallen into disrepair and turning neighborhood eyesores into neighborhood gathering places and lifting up the entire area in the process. 

“I cannot eat all the cookies people send to us as a thank you for making their neighborhoods better,” Pollack jokes.

Az Business magazine talked with Pollack during his 50th year in business to get his take on lessons learned, the importance of making an impact on the communities in which he does business and what we can expect heading into 2024 and beyond.

Az Business: One of former Gov. Doug Ducey’s last acts as governor was giving you a commendation from the State of Arizona. How did it feel to get that honor?

Michael Pollack:Anytime people see my work and appreciate it, it makes me feel incredible and it’s one of the things that motivates me to get up every day and keep doing what I do. I shifted over many years ago into more of a redevelopment/renovation mode. I take something that maybe has been forgotten by time or maybe has seen better days and I try really hard to bring it back to better than it was when it was first built. The goal every single time is improving our communities and making them better places. So, I am absolutely honored to be recognized for doing what I love to do and accomplishing the goals I set out to accomplish. 

AZ Big Media’s Erin Thorburn presents Michael Pollack with the Community Impact Award at the 2016 RED Awards, presented by AZ Big Media, which publishes Az Business and AZRE magazines.

AB: Why is going into these communities and helping resurrect them so important to you?

MP: When we build something new from the ground up, it’s often a lot simpler or easier than it is to take something that’s already been built, already been designed, and try to reposition it without tearing it down and starting over. There are so many challenges involved in redevelopment. Now, one thing that I’ll say is we always look for a challenge and we’ve been supplied with some REALLY challenging projects over the years. But after 50 years in this business, I know that if we don’t deal with our eyesores today, they become tomorrow’s slums. The commercial projects that I get involved with are mostly on corners. Before you get into a neighborhood, what do you see? You see the corner. If the corner is run down and neglected by time or by circumstance, the neighborhood often follows. So watching those corners turn around and then watching neighborhoods come to life and turn around is exciting to me. And it’s really rewarding. 

AB: How are you able to look at these complexes that have become such eyesore and see the potential in them? Does anybody ever look at you and say, “Are you crazy?”

MP: I get that all the time. I get colleagues in the business who say, “What are you thinking? How are you going to make it work? You’re not playing with a full deck today.” But, knock on wood, we’ve been very fortunate. Almost all the projects that I’ve been able to work on have turned around. I’ve had some turn around as quickly as three to six months and some can take three to six years. But when people look at the before and after photos, they become believers. And when I look back at some of the work we’ve done, I sometimes say to myself, “How did I pull that one off?”

AB: How are you able to maintain that confidence when everybody around around you is telling you how crazy you must be to take on some of these projects?

MP: Today, I can honestly say it’s because of the level of experience I have after 50 years and completing somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 13 million square feet of projects. That’s a lot for me. By large company standards, we’re a smaller company. But by my standards: Did I ever think I was going to be personally involved in more than 13 million square feet of projects? No. I didn’t set out to do that. I always said if I could be involved in 1 million square feet of projects, I’d be happy. So it’s been a long road and — sometimes — the road has been bumpy. We’ve seen the storms and lived through the storms. Having the experience of knowing how to handle things that can look catastrophic to many can create a lot of confidence in a person.

AB: You’re celebrating 50 years in real estate. If you had to identify a couple of your most memorable milestones, what would they be?

MP: I started my career really young. I started right out of high school at 18 years old. I built my first house by the time I was 19. So, some of my career milestones go back a long way. My career has taken me into many different journeys. I started out in single-family housing and then went from single-family housing to multifamily housing. I was involved in more than 15,000 apartment units between 1973 and 1985. Back in 1985. I sold out of the apartment business and I retired for one whole day and then reinvented myself the next day and dove into the world of commercial industrial space, so it’s been a very diversified career. But my specialty became commercial properties. I just like what I can do with them. Some of them turned out so spectacularly that I cannot even believe the results. So, I found a niche many years ago that I truly enjoy. I enjoy renovating and repositioning something that already exists. Everybody knows I’m taking what somebody else did — and in many cases made a mistake on — and I’m making it better. Nobody complains when you make something better.

AB: Over the last 50 years, you’ve seen it all — the ups, the downs, the in-betweens. What advice do you have for people who are aspiring to be the next Michael Pollack?

MP: I’m going to quote Rodney Dangerfield and say “Stay in school.” People often talk about the fact that I have achieved my success without graduating from college. Yes, I did. But that was a long time ago. That was 50 years ago. Education is imperative, but just having the education doesn’t get you over the finish line. You have to not only be dedicated, you have to be willing to go above and beyond. When people ask me what it takes to get to the level we’ve been able to get to, I tell them it takes dedication, hard work and integrity. You can’t just do it halfway because — eventually — it catches up with you.

AB: Another big part of the Michael Pollack story is your philanthropic endeavors. Why is that such an important part of who you are as a business leader in Arizona?

MP:When I started back in 1973 as an 18-year-old kid with a lot of dreams, I always said that if I could, I’d do my very best to give back to society. I’ve been a huge supporter of Goodwill because I like what they do. I like the fact that they’re not just giving a handout, they’re giving a hand up. They’re teaching people skills and I really like that. 

But I’ve also enjoyed working with musical programs in the schools and organizations that are fighting breast cancer or leukemia or cystic fibrosis or homelessness. I’m all over the place. But the one thing I enjoy is being able to see the results. I like to visit the places. I like to see exactly what they’re doing. I get great joy out of being able to help lift others up.

AB: Speaking of seeing results, we’ve seen retail rebound in a big way. Was the proclamation that retail is dead overstated?

MP: First of all, I think there was a real problem during the days of the pandemic. There’s no question about that. There was a dark cloud floating over retail. And it wasn’t just straight retail. It was everything from health clubs to things that are Internet-proof or Internet-resistant. Gyms were one of the things you would have never thought would have a problem with the Internet. So everybody said the Internet was going to kill retail. I never really saw the Internet killing retail. But there was a time during the pandemic that all we saw on the streets were Amazon trucks delivering to people. And again, to me, that was temporary. People still want to get out. People still want to experience things. People said that movie theaters were going to be dead. Well, they were dead for a while. Now, they are back. Going forward, I think the death of retail was way over-exaggerated. The strongest people did exactly what we expected. They survived. And some of the weaker ones didn’t have good business plans or maybe their business became obsolete. There was a time when the instant camera that could give you a picture within 30 seconds was the hottest thing in the world, and then it wasn’t anymore. And so for some businesses, people just didn’t stay up with the times. 

But people want to be amongst other people. There are more buyers for retail properties today than there is retail properties for sale. Retail is still popular as something that real estate investors want to own. 

AB: What should people in Metro Phoenix be watching in the retail sector?

MP:I think we’ll continue to see experience-focused retail, where people are getting an experience. We’re already seeing a lot of that. Malls are adding things to the mix that you would not have thought of five years ago. We’ll see more of that as people realize that a lot of the big boxes didn’t need to be quite as big as they were. I think we’ll see more of those big boxes carved up and cut up. A big thing in the market this last year has been the pickleball. Everybody who’s got a larger space, they’re looking at converting to pickleball. Now, are we going to need that much pickleball? I’m not sure about that. But they’re doing a lot of that. 

Even at the Chandler Mall, they’re adding these experience types of rides and it just shows you that people are leaning toward experiences. We’ll continue to see some of that outdated retail making that shift to experiences. I think centers will become more specialized. The key is not to overbuild again. And I think what’s going to happen is interest rates — at the moment at least — are going to keep that overbuilding in check. 

AB: How are interest rates impacting the commercial real estate business today?

MP: Interest rates are going to play a factor for many owners that need to finance or re-finance in the near future, so we’ll have to see what happens. But even if interest rates continue to slide upward, I think that will be even more reason to redevelop what’s existing. And I think the trend will also stay with mixed-use development with retail and housing. 

AB: What other trends should we be looking for going into 2024?

MP: I think that we’re going to see more redevelopment of existing projects. We’re going to see the focus on infill. That’s going to be a big focus. We’ll see specialty users continuing to come into the Arizona market and other markets as well. We’ll see an economy on the retail side that proves that retail isn’t going away — meaning bricks and sticks. People just have to be more diligent about what they do and how they compete with both the Internet and some of the big-box users. But as far as retail goes, I think we’re going to see a fairly smooth landing in 2024.