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A Mall Owner Who’s Finding New Tenants and Ideas for Repositioning Via TikTok

June 8, 2022

When Mario Kiezi, a 32-year-old Michigan developer and the CEO of MKiezi Properties, acquired the 54-year-old Oakland Mall in the Detroit suburb of Troy, he decided, in true younger Millennial fashion, that the best way to engage the local community and find new tenants is TikTok.

“We just bought a mall and I want YOUR ideas,” Kiezi wrote in big white letters on the bottom of a TikTok video about the March acquisition. It’s had more than 600,000 views since he published it on March 28. The video, two minutes and 52 seconds at final cut, features Kiezi wearing a purple button-down shirt and an earnest expression and recording selfie video on his phone as he walked the 1.5 million-square-foot enclosed mall. He highlighted empty spaces, shared ideas and told viewers he’d like their suggestions on new restaurant concepts to fill vacant Taco Bell and Olga’s Kitchen spaces, on bubble tea stores, a children’s wing and more. “We are going to activate all of this space,” he said.

To date, Kiezi — who has acquired, managed and redeveloped more than 2 million square feet of commercial real estate in Michigan and Ohio since 2013 — has received more than 6,800 responses on that TikTok post alone. People tagged their favorite restaurants, food truck owners, artisan stores, local artists and retailer wishes. As a direct result of the post, he’s also heard from local chefs and entrepreneurs interested in viewing the empty storefronts, artists interested in helping with the aesthetic and subcontractors looking for work, “which is funny because you keep hearing about how hard it is to find labor nowadays,” Kiezi said. 

He has continued posting about the mall, sometimes as many as four videos a day, always using the same unedited, self-narrated, stream-of-consciousness approach as his first video. “Thoughts on Cookieeeboys?” he asked in one video about a local company that has expressed interest. In another video, he pointed his phone at the mall entrance and asked: “What should I do with this sign? Should I paint it?”

Kiezi, who said he’s “not the most tech-savvy person,” never expected this sort of response. “It’s created a new class of communication,” he said.

TikTok, which has the highest engagement rate of any social media platform, has become one of his most valuable tools: as a research incubator and virtual brokerage house. “People are giving me ideas that I hadn’t thought about before,” he explained. “They’re already making the mall better.” Based on his initial post, Kiezi has soft-signed three tenants, including two in the foodservice industry and one shoe cleaning business. All of them have large TikTok followings themselves. And the videos don’t cost him anything other than his time.

Kiezi employs a design firm and leasing agents for Oakland Mall, but there’s no outsourcing of his social media. He spends about two hours every day reading comments and direct messages and responding. He also posts his TikTok videos on his Instagram but said TikTok is his preferred medium. Kiezi himself has no media background or training. He got the idea for posting on TikTok after watching, for nearly a year, other business owners find engagement by posting their own casual, organic videos. One day in February, he decided to try it himself. “I was nervous,” he admitted, “but part of growth involves overcoming self-fear.”

Entry to Real Estate and to TikTok

Kiezi started out in the real estate industry right after high school as co-owner with his brothers of a family-run liquor store in Toledo, Ohio. He started developing and investing in small centers after Kroger paid a hefty sum to purchase some of the family company’s liquor licenses for several of its stores. Part of Kiezi’s current portfolio includes Bulk Beverage Co., a 25,000-square-foot liquor store in Toledo, and some of his earliest videos were Bulk employees emptying the shelves of Russian vodka after Gov. Mike DeWine asked retailers to remove Russian-made vodka from the shelves in support of Ukraine. “I was just trying to document the moment,” he said.

Kiezi started gaining more traction and followers when he focused on self-narrated content about his real estate properties. In one March post, he talked about how he had flipped a vacant Hardee’s in Shelby Township, Michigan, into a flourishing Popeye’s. In another, he took viewers behind the scenes of a vacancy at Auburn Plaza, also in Shelby Township. The content was rough and unpolished, and viewers responded well to that. It felt authentic, as if Kiezi was talking right to them. Said Kiezi about his style: “I just pull out my phone. I don’t have anybody edit it.”

His TikTok strategy is one from which other property owners and landlords could benefit. Eighty percent of TikTok’s more than 1 billion monthly users are between the ages of 16 and 34. Using the platform “allows a landlord to really promote their project in a unique way that really speaks to the next generation of customers,” said Colliers national retail director Anjee Solanki. Additionally, because of TikTok’s large user base and easy-to-use video production tools, the platform appeals to small business owners, creators and entrepreneurs. It’s great for attracting local businesses, Solanki said. “The only drawback is you’re not going to get a lot of the national brands’ attention.” To reach those names, it’s better to use other marketing channels, she said.

The Plan for Oakland Mall

Kiezi, though, is not trying to attract national retailers to Oakland Mall. His vision for the property, which is about 90% occupied and anchored by Macy’s and JCPenney, is a “marketplace of makers.” His focus for filling empty spaces is to seek out local entrepreneurs, representatives of “the Shark Tank culture,” including young entrepreneurs and women-, Black- and Latino-owned businesses, he said. Younger audiences “want unique and special things,” he noted. When reaching out to potential tenants, his first focus is food and his second focus is entertainment.

In five years, Kiezi aspires for the center to have the vibe of Chelsea Market in New York City with its local artisans and chefs and where people eat, get entertainment and shop. “There’s no place like that in Detroit right now,” he said. He’s working with his designers on a plan to build multiple food halls within the space, including an expanded food court featuring local artisanal and ethnic offerings, and a separate, 15,000-square-foot “bakery suite.”

Rendering by GH+A Design Studios

He also has contracted with a West Coast firm to bring in TikTok stars and entertainers for guest appearances. He’d love to bring in experiential activities, like slime making and an enclosed Nerf gun shooting range. “I call this the sleepiest site in Metro Detroit, and we’re going to wake it up,” he said.

Kiezi has shared this vision of Oakland Mall as a food and entertainment destination in his TikTok videos, and that’s what attracted Cookieeeboys. “We were attracted to Mario’s vision,” co-owner Hussien Ajrouche said. Cookieeeboys, a favorite of local Detroiters, sells freshly baked cookies topped with ice cream out of a trailer. It routinely sells out at night and had been looking for a commercial kitchen and storefront.  

So they reached out to Kiezi on TikTok. “We didn’t really think too much of it because we know [Mario’s] a busy guy,” Ajrouche said. But two hours after they first messaged him, Kiezi wrote back to arrange a meeting. It went well. In April, Cookieeeboys announced it had soft-signed a deal to open up in the vacated Mrs. Fields in September. “We believe they’re the next generation of retail,” Kiezi said about the company.

Real Estate Chops

Before Oakland Mall, MKiezi Properties’ retail real estate focus was the redevelopment of -100,000-square-foot or smaller centers in Ohio and Michigan. But when COVID hit, the supply chain and labor issues made it “virtually impossible to construct,” Kiezi said. The company pivoted to acquiring properties in “super-regional” locations. He realized that many recently  shuttered big-box stores were in desirable locations and thought there was potential for redevelopment. That included the Sears adjacent to the Oakwood Mall, which was close to the highway and had good bones. He bought it in July 2021 for $15 million.

As Kiezi worked on his redevelopment plans for the former Sears — Hobby Lobby is contracted to move into 60,000 square feet of the first floor — it got him thinking about Oakland Mall’s potential.

Kiezi recognized the attractive location, but he also had an emotional attachment to the mall. When he was a child, his parents owned an ice cream store there called Anton’s Ice Cream. He spent a large chunk of his childhood scooping ice cream and, on breaks, roaming the stores and the arcade. Even then, he remembered the mall being a “marketplace for the community,” he said. It was where people went to shop and to be entertained. Celebrities came in for signings. “I don’t remember any time in my life I’ve ever seen a larger crowd than when Britney Spears came to that mall,” he said. Kiezi believed that with some tweaking, he could bring that energy back.

So in September of 2021, he reached out to CenterCal to see if it was interested in selling the property. There were no competing bids, but still it “was not an easy deal,” Kiezi remembered. “It was a very large transaction, but I got it done.” It helped that the property contained a Sportsman’s Warehouse, which Kiezi sold the same day he closed on the mall acquisition. That covered more than 70% of the equity he needed, he said.

And since the announcement of the acquisition, he’s been there almost every day, with his phone, talking to retailers and customers about their dreams for the property. And he’s already implementing the feedback. His TikTok audience displayed an overwhelming love for California-based artist Chandrika Metiver, known for art and sculptures in a material that looks like aluminum foil. So Kiezi flew the artist to Detroit and documented installation of new pieces at the mall. These sorts of actions, he said, “build trust between you and your viewers.” Kiezi, through TikTok, is at once building a devoted virtual following and rebuilding a physical mall. By early June, he had amassed nearly 42,500 followers.

For most of his career, Kiezi has defined himself as a flipper. “I look for values in centers that other people don’t see, try to achieve top maximum value in that center,” then “sell the shopping center and flip into another shopping center.” But Oakland Mall, he said, is different: “I really want to focus on it. It’s such a powerful project in Metro Detroit, and I’m excited for it.”

His ultimate win would be bringing Britney, who has 6.7 million TikTok followers, back. “I’m working on it,” he said.

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

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