A tour of Michael Pollack’s three museums show a man who revels in a past that started well before his entry into the world. One is loaded with memorabilia from bygone days, things that used to linger behind the glass panes on department storefronts to convert window shoppers into spenders. A couple other pieces have a “one of these things is not like the others” ring to it given their relative modernity, like the mini statue of Sonic the Hedgehog.
That one museum alone has approximately 8,000 pieces valued at a blank number of dollars — Pollack wouldn’t say how much, but he said one piece alone is worth approximately $70,000 — and he has two additional museums devoted to slot machines from the early days of the 1900s and a few decades forward.
But the past is brought to the surface incidentally while conversing with Pollack, as the symbolism of the treasures within his pyramid in Mesa conflict with how much he speaks about a future that doesn’t include him. In this case, the past is a platform for a future in which Pollack’s legacy is linked inextricably to the name; it’s not the ethereal being that matters, but rather the Pollack.
Who is Michael Pollack?
The answer to that question changes from person to person. People who haven’t lived in the Valley long might shrug their shoulders and respond with a confused “who?”, while others might have an inkling of familiarity based on the prevalence of the last name around the Valley. The name Pollack pops up on the names of buildings and strip malls all over the place — Mesa alone has around 20 Pollack projects — as well as a Tempe movie theater and a Chabad Jewish center in Chandler.
The name might conjure images of a man whose dress belies his wealth; he traded in his business suit and tie three years ago for more casual garb like the black, short-sleeve shirt and black pants he wore on a recent episode of A&E’s “Barry’d Treasure” that showcased his collection. He looks like a cross between Bert Lahr and the Dude, although much of that comes from the elaborate hair style he’s carried with him for a rather long time.
Those with more familiarity with the name will understand just how much he dominates the real estate scene in the East Valley through his company, Michael A. Pollack Real Estate Investments. The biography on Pollack’s investment website — a document that spans more than 2,000 words — states his involvement in real estate deals encompasses more than 10 million square feet of property in his lifetime.
His entry into the real estate world started well before he started off on his own as an 18 year old in 1973. His father, Robert, was a developer who sold scrap metal and junk batteries, and the younger Pollack picked up experience in plumbing, carpeting, landscaping and several other areas devoted to home building prior to the first house he built in his hometown of San Jose, Calif., in 1973.
Pollack’s work on site evolved into a position managing properties for others, at least until he ventured off on his own in 1985 in order to have more control over his projects across Arizona and in Utah, New York, California, Louisiana and Texas. Most of his projects in Arizona entail purchasing distressed properties and renovating them almost wholesale, and he said he does so without raising the price on renters.
“I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a complaint about taking a corner and making it better,” he said.
Mesa Economic Development Director William Jabjiniak confirmed that in a statement, saying Pollack has, “made significant impact on the community by not only revitalizing many of Mesa’s commercial and industrial properties, but also by his many philanthropic efforts.”
Money isn’t exactly a priority at this point in Pollack’s life, at least for his own well being. Rather, Pollack said he prefers to donate his money to others through organizations like Chabad, Goodwill Industries, Boy Scouts of America, Chandler Regional Art, the Chandler, Tempe and Mesa centers for the arts and St. Mary’s Food Bank. Those are just a few of the organizations he’s either contributed to or served on boards for; it’s more difficult to find a local nonprofit he hasn’t participated in than listing all the ones he has.
Aside from the nonprofit organizations is his annual participation in Tempe’s Fantasy of Lights parade and several charity events with his band, the Michael A. Pollack Corporate Affair. The band serves as a form of wish fulfillment for Pollack, who wanted to become a professional drummer if he hadn’t enter real estate (the dream does offer a quick explanation for his hair, though).
Leasing Director Patrick Cassidy said the Pollack Corporate Affair generally serves as free entertainment for charity events, although the unpaid status does not apply to the other band members.
“His band mates are paid quite well,” he said.
There’s also the story told by Patriot Commercial Properties President/Designated Broker Jack Stein, who has worked with Pollack on deals for several years, about the son of an employee who fell ill. Stein said Pollack paid for the son’s transportation to the hospital and many additional expenses that tallied up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That story might represent an extreme, but the guiding principle isn’t too far off, per Stein, who said the people who work for Pollack are well taken care of.
“He spends more money on other people than he does himself,” he added.
Pollack Tempe Cinemas
Operating a movie theater in an era with quick and easy access to films is a difficult proposition; trying to do that with a second-run theater edges on business insanity. These are cinemas that show films weeks after they’ve premiered and sometimes right around the time they’ve shown up on video or services like Netflix, giving those theaters direct competition with a viewer’s sofa.
Instead of bowing to the lords of streaming film services, Pollack has more than doubled down at his titular theater in Tempe by upgrading six screens from film to digital at a cost of $400,000 — a sizable investment for a concept edging toward extinction. He changed the fee without increasing the price either; the cost remains $3 per person every day except Tuesday, when it drops to $2.
Pollack’s work on the theater since he bought it 10 years ago includes the addition of pieces from his private collection that add a bit of a retro vibe to the place. Alongside those changes are a few other revamps that push that $400,000 investment much higher.
Well, investment might be the wrong word in this case, as it indicates the possibility of some kind of return on that funding. That’s not the case for Pollack, who admits he takes a hit on the theater on a year-to-year basis.
“It’s more of a community service than it is a business,” he said.
That offers the best explanation for keeping a business that runs in the red open. Pollack is a bit of a movie buff himself — his office includes a gun from “Scarface,” and he can talk film industry economics with ease — and a simple way of sharing that interest is to offer a place to watch said films at a reduced price for a family.
Take, for example, a family of five, who would have to pay at least $50 to see a movie on a Saturday night, not including popcorn, soda and other treats. At Pollack’s place, the entry fee is about $15, and it comes with the potential that Pollack himself might show up to greet moviegoers.
“From a business perspective it’s a terrible expense,” he said. “But I want people to get a first-class experience.”
Devotion and respect
The people who love Pollack maintain a level of devotion and respect for the man that’s difficult to quantify. Stein called him an “amazing human being” who has changed his life and even his family’s life completely. James Dumars, who serves as managing director for Northmarq Capital and has worked with Pollack for 16 years, credited Pollack for his generous nature and for having a positive effect on the community around him.
“I think the community needs more people like him,” he said.
Few people have known and worked alongside Pollack longer than Cassidy, who first encountered Pollack while job hunting in California in late 1976 and watched as Pollack and a foreman broke up a six-man tussle at a construction site.
Cassidy has remained at Pollack’s side ever since. He has watched his employer try to handle a female tiger for a commercial shoot in Houston (it was a last-minute replacement) and has had Pollack join him on mission trips in a dozen countries. They’ve also been there to console each other during the days without sunshine.
“I totally trust Michael with my life, and he trusts me just the same,” he said.
A story about Michael Pollack’s life now has to include a reference to his son, Daniel, who died on Sept. 11, 2011, at the age of 31. He was standing in a median in Scottsdale at 1:30 a.m. when a driver struck him and drove off into the early morning. The Scottsdale Police Department arrested a Tempe resident for the crime two weeks after the incident.
Pollack said his son was brilliant in real estate and was almost ready to take over the business prior to his death.
“The worst thing that can happen to any parent is they can lose a child; it’s very, very difficult. There’s not a day that goes by in which I don’t think about what could have been, what should have been,” he said.
What could have been is a business even larger than it is right now, but Pollack admits he hasn’t been as aggressive acquiring properties or growing his company in the wake of his son’s death. Even his attire has shifted since then, as Stein said Pollack has ditched the suit he wore no matter how hot it got — many photos of Pollack on his various websites still contain images of him in professional clothes — to the more casual, all-black attire he wears now. Even Pollack’s hair has grown a bit longer in the last two-plus years since his son’s death.
What should and would have been are gone, but what remains is the what can and will be, and Pollack said his son’s death has emphasized a coda he’s followed closely ever since: “I can’t change what was, but I’m going to do my best to make a positive influence in what will be.”
What’s in a name?
There comes a point in a person’s life — the time frame is usually in the mid-50s — when he or she really begins to consider what the world will be like after his or her death. It’s that stretch when a person first recognizes the impending mortality, but still has enough vibrancy left to do something about it.
Not many people have the opportunity and the means to leave the type of reminder that the 58-year-old Pollack can. He has all the projects that bear his surname, many of which are granted a certain degree of lavishness to them — the lobby of his Mesa building alone is more luxuriously ostentatious than those belonging to four-star hotels. Even his business card is silver, shiny, gaudy and capable of making Patrick Bateman blush.
The obvious explanation for the aesthetic bombardment is a sense of ego, but Cassidy and Dumars swear that isn’t the case. Cassidy considers the amount of time, effort and resources that go into those projects the completion a journey with each property; Pollack, he said, is willing to wait years for a property to earn money back.
“Some people put up a shopping center and make money. That’s not how he’s wired,” Dumars added.
What they say motivates Pollack to put large amounts of money to turn rundown strip malls into places that earn eye approval is pride in the craftsmanship. The name, Pollack confirmed, is a stamp of approval indicating that the work that went into the facility lived up to the standards he sets.
That’s the rub of it, really, as maintaining high standards increases the odds the Pollack name will remain on front of movie theaters, shopping malls and community centers. The longer the name remains in sight, the longer it offers a clue as to who Pollack is and what he’s accomplished in his life.
“Someday, when I’m out of this world, I’ll have left it a better place than I found it,” he said.