Bo Okoroji still remembers the musky scent of an Abercrombie & Fitch fragrance that wafted through the store where he worked in the 2000s at the Dallas Galleria mall.
“The smell never goes away,” Okoroji said.
Neither has Okoroji’s desire to work in malls. In fact, he likes them so much that he’s buying several of the retail centers and is looking for more.
Okoroji, 35, has grown his career from retail employee to managing partner of Steerpoint Capital, a Los Angeles-based retail investment firm involved with $245 million of mall acquisitions last year. He launched his firm in 2022 with lead investor Bridge Group Investments, a buyer with a lot of dry powder. Bridge Investment was started by the Mersho family who founded the Shoe Palace apparel chain.
Last year, Okoroji helped spearhead the purchase of several California malls. They are Antelope Valley Mall in Palmdale, Northridge Mall in Salinas and the Shops at Montebello in Montebello.
Okoroji said he and his partners expect to spend even more this year on malls. Investors have shied away from that part of the retail sector as sales move from bricks and sticks into e-commerce, and centers continue to woo back shoppers who could not come to malls during the pandemic.
In that, however, Okoroji sees opportunity. He said he could improve undervalued retail properties by incorporating other uses including residential, hotel, storage, office and more. This is a trend that several large owners including Simon Property Group and CBL Properties have dived into at their retail centers across the country.
Okoroji lives and breathes malls. Outside of work, he’s an avowed mall walker and likes to visit shopping centers early in the morning or late at night, taking mental notes on successful concepts within these mega-shopping centers. He enjoys visiting malls across America and estimates he’s already been to 70% of the nation’s super regional malls.
He’s also not ashamed to admit that one of his favorite snacks is a good old-fashioned mall pretzel.
“The team jokes all the time when we walk by, ‘Are you going to stop?'” Okoroji said when he passes by a pretzel stand.
Before embarking on a career as a mall owner, Okoroji thought he’d become an investment banker when he was younger after watching character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street.”
“I saw Gordon Gekko and said, ‘Whatever he does, I want to do,'” Okoroji said.
Dreams of a Gekko-like career faded when Okoroji graduated from the University of Houston during the Great Recession in 2009. Despite earning a degree in economics, he had no job prospects during the downturn. So, Okoroji started a business and went back to school, twice, before discovering an interest in real estate.
Around 2014, Okoroji received a major break into the mall development business. He accepted an offer to join a summer associate program with Indianapolis-based mall giant Simon Property. Then he landed a permanent position in Simon’s real estate executive training program.
At Simon, Okoroji met with executives including David Contis, David Simon, Richard Sokolov and Stephen Sterrett. At times, if the executives needed a ride to a site visit, junior employee Okoroji was tasked with driving the brass to properties. That’s when he listened in on calls and the conversations between these executives, an important time for the budding mall business executive.
“It was learning by osmosis,” Okoroji said.
In 2019, Okoroji got another big break when Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield reached out to recruit him. He took the offer and became the company’s vice president and head of U.S. investment and divestment, an important role as Unibail revealed plans in 2021 to sell its multibillion-dollar U.S. real estate portfolio.
Okoroji said his career was tilting toward the C-suite when he realized he needed to make a choice between reaching for a CEO role or taking an entrepreneurial route.
In 2021, he jumped at the opportunity to launch Steerpoint, which now works with Bridge Group and other investors to buy and reposition retail properties.
It was a gamble, but the Texan didn’t want to shy away from the challenge. Okoroji said the past few years have been great to be in the mall buying business, as the pandemic resulted in more serious discussions around redeveloping and investing in the future of malls.
“Malls were created to be city centers, and the world developed around them,” Okoroji said. “Our view is that owners, anchors and everyone else are more willing to come to the table coming out of the pandemic.”
Okoroji and his partners are upping the ante this year with plans to buy another $350 million in retail properties. He isn’t shy about his dream acquisition: buying Galleria Dallas where he held his first job at Abercrombie. That dream is a real possibility now after the 1.4 million-square-foot mall and adjacent 448-room hotel went back to the lender in December.
“That would be my ‘I made it’ moment,” Okoroji said. “It’s where it all started.”