How Alex Pissios Left His Mark on the Chicago Economy

Chicago’s Alex Pissios brings out his servant’s heart to pause with paws as he celebrates PAWS Chicago in the grass with a couple of puppies and a group of volunteers..
Alex Pissios keeps his heart in play for Chicago by combining service with profits.

Alex Pissios understands all too well the shame and desperation that comes with having nothing. Pissios was doing quite well as a real estate developer in Chicago before 2009. Then the recession came, causing the real estate market and Pissios’ career to crash in a spectacular fashion. He had no choice but to file bankruptcy. Pissios describes this time in his life as a really dark place emotionally, saying, “I definitely had suicidal thoughts. I had two kids and my wife just had our third. I ended up staying home for a year watching the kids while we were living in a foreclosed house. My wife had to give up being a stay-at-home mom and went back to being a dental hygienist. It was a real dark time.”

Fortunately for the Pissios family, the hard times wouldn’t last forever.

Alex Pissios Receives a Helping Hand From an Unlikely Hero

Nick Mirkopoulos, a distant relative, was 70 years old and running Cinespace in Toronto when he heard about Pissios’ troubles while visiting Chicago for a family wedding.  The first thing Mirkopoulos did was pay Pissios’ bankruptcy attorney’s fees. He then put him in charge of opening and managing Cinespace in Chicago.

Alex Pissios describes his first cousin once removed — whom he called “Uncle Nick” — as appreciative of hard work and always having his back. Mirkopoulos could be stern and had no tolerance for laziness, which was fine with Pissios. He’d been unemployed for over a year and desperately wanted to be employed. Cinespace Chicago grew from four stages to 52 stages under Pissios’ decade of leadership. He sold the company in 2021 for $1.3 billion.

Chicago Experiences Economic Growth After Hardship Thanks to Alex Pissios

The recession and real estate collapse hurt many people in Chicago, not just Pissios. Ten years after the country’s financial troubles started, some residents owed more than their homes were worth. Chicago and the Midwest in general fared worse than coastal states in economic recovery. The opening of Cinespace in 2010 would be instrumental in stimulating the economy in the Windy City.

Cinespace completed 404 projects in 2011, generating $150 million for the local economy. Seven years later, local spending had more than tripled to $474 million. The forward momentum continued into 2019 until the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 threatened Chicago with financial devastation.

Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recognized the importance of reopening Cinespace as soon as possible. “What did the mayor and the governor both say, how do we get back to normal? The film business was one of their priorities,” recalls Alex Pissios. “Why? Well, the jobs, of course, but these people go out to eat every night. They go shopping, they use taxis, they stay in hotels. They rent the Chase bank lobby to shoot a scene in and they pay a lot of money for it. So they knew they had to get the film industry back to kick-start everything.”

Just as Cinespace jump-started the Chicago economy in 2010, it did it again in 2020 after coronavirus shutdowns.

How Alex Pissios Turned His Focus to Philanthropy

Pissios grew up the son of a special education teacher in Chicago. Although his mother didn’t work outside the home, she was active in her church and compassionate toward the suffering. Thanks to his parents’ example, Alex Pissios knew from a young age that he wanted to help others. He went to college planning to go into special education himself.

Just as he was about to apply for teaching jobs, Pissios received an unexpected offer from his uncle John Mirkopoulos. Pissios recalls the conversation:

“‘Hey, I’m opening up a store on Michigan Avenue next door to Nike town, 675 North Michigan. I need someone I can trust to run the store.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m going to be a special education teacher. I don’t like fur and I’m not into leathers.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, what are they going to pay you?’ I think it was $22,500. He says, ‘Well, I’ll give you 75.’ I’m like, ‘OK, I guess I’m in the fur leather business.’”

After spending a decade in retail management, Pissios moved on to commercial real estate. He developed even greater compassion for others after experiencing his own life crisis when the market crashed. Upon becoming CEO of Cinespace Chicago, he quickly started the CineCares Foundation with the man he called Uncle Nick. The foundation provided scholarships and internships in the film production industry. Selling Cinespace last year freed up his time to devote nearly all his efforts to philanthropy.

Alex Pissios Still Has a Heart for Special Education

Pissios is currently working on starting a foundation to help young adults with special needs find employment. He states that special education programs in Chicago public schools are excellent. However, people from 18 to 21 with special needs often receive little support after graduating from high school.

He recognizes many families face financial barriers to get their young adult children the help they need. The result is that some young people remain at home without work or purpose. His new foundation will provide support to ensure that special-needs high school graduates don’t fall through the cracks.

Reaching out to the special-needs community was already part of the mission of CineCares. Now that he isn’t operating Cinespace full-time, Pissios plans to focus almost exclusively on his new foundation.

Giving Back is More Important Than Making Money

Nick Mirkopoulos passed away eight years ago, but his generosity lives on in Alex Pissios and so many others. Pissios will never forget how his Uncle Nick lent him a helping hand. Mirkopoulos loved to provide people with an opportunity and knew that what they did with it was up to them. Pissios heard many people speak at Mirkopoulos’ funeral about how his investment in them changed their lives.

Alex Pissios feels the same way as his Uncle Nick about giving people opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have. One example is the Cinespace paid internship program that also paid for students’ union dues. He states it would be foolish to throw an opportunity like that away but knows he can’t control other people’s actions. Fortunately, most of those he helped realized how fortunate they were and went on to exceed his expectations.

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