“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind,” wrote the philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

That was certainly the case in March, when Zelma “Zee” Allred, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Pool Water Products, was honored at a gala and fashion show for the nearly 30 years of time and resources she’s donated to The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, a Southern California non-profit arts organization.

This wasn’t the first time in the honoree’s seat for Allred. Over the years she’s received tributes from a wide range of philanthropic and educational organizations, all of which consider her a key ingredient in accomplishing their mission. Such recognitions round out an already extraordinary life, one in which she has become an industry pioneer.

But the journey to that seat of honor had a rather humble start, and has taken more than one unexpected turn along the way.

Modest beginnings

It was 1952, and the young family was en route from Arizona to Davis, Calif., where Marvin Allred was slated to start a Ph.D. program. Both he and Zee had been chemistry majors, but she had dropped out of college to raise their two sons, Vern and Dean.

Before heading north, the family decided to spend a summer in the beautiful, largely undeveloped community of Newport Beach. Marvin took what was supposed to be a temporary office job with a local construction company that built pools, among other things. But rather than continuing on to Davis, the Allreds stayed in Orange County, where Marvin soon became a foreman.

At that time, a strong economy, housing boom and new construction techniques were helping grow the fledgling pool market, and the Allreds saw an opportunity. They borrowed $500 to buy a truck and pool service route, and soon were in business for themselves.

Marvin worked in the field, while Zee took care of bookkeeping, answered phones, dealt with suppliers and raised the boys.

The couple’s timing and strategy couldn’t have been better. By 1958 they were ready to open a retail store, Allred’s Pool Supply, where they used their technical background to create a unique service for customers. The new concept of in-house water testing gave clients a reason to visit the store, and soon the Allreds started holding pool care classes there.

“We were the very first in Orange County to offer that kind of service,” Zee says. “Our customers really liked the fact that we had proper lab equipment and knowledge. … This service was key to our rapid growth and expansion.”

Gaining speed

Marvin and Zee were partners in every sense of the word. Their desks faced each other, and together they worked long hours building the business. Vern and Dean would come to the store after school and stay until closing time.

By 1964 the Allreds had 18 retail stores. This would be considered a large presence even by today’s standards, but it was massive back then, taking into account how much smaller the industry was overall. However, the two entrepreneurs saw an even bigger opportunity — one that presented less stress than the daily retail grind. They decided to enter the supply-side of the pool business. So they franchised their stores and opened PWP.

The Allreds’ list of innovations continued. PWP offered a nationwide catalog with instructions for using certain products, a revolutionary idea at the time. And instead of making their customers visit a warehouse, they provided air-conditioned showrooms where builders and service technicians could view cutaways and pick up product literature. The Allreds also adapted a practice they had started in their retail stores. Once a month the couple invited manufacturers to drop by and demonstrate their products, providing lunch so service people would take time from their routes, eat, and learn.

Business continued to thrive, and by the late ’60s Vern and Dean were in college and a daughter, Carol Ann was born. Zee decided to take a year off to care for the new child, and then came another of life’s unexpected turns. In 1968, at the age of 42, Marvin suffered a massive heart attack.

The ripple effects were staggering. Zee was forced to  go back to work and take the reins of the company while Marvin recovered. But even after open-heart surgery — a very new procedure at the time — his physical condition never returned to normal. “The doctors ordered him to never pick up anything heavier than a pair of shoes,” Zee said.

The couple eventually grew apart and divorced, but by all accounts remained close until Marvin’s death in 2005. Zee retained ownership of PWP, and Marvin ran one of the less stressful franchised retail operations.

Second career

PWP flourished under Zee’s leadership. In 1973, she opened a second location in suburban Los Angeles, and today, PWP has 20 branches in five states, along with a substantial international business.

The success leaves Zee Allred extremely grateful, not only to the industry and the employees who helped build the firm, but also to her community in Orange County. It’s served as motivation behind her extensive philanthropy and community service.

“I’ve made a good living in Orange County,” she says. “It’s important to me to give back to the community that’s given me so much.”

Since her charitable work began in 1975, Allred’s list of causes has grown steadily. She serves on the boards of hospitals, works on behalf of women and families, and contributes considerable time, energy and funds to a variety of educational institutions and initiatives. “It’s like another job,” she said.

The Segerstrom Center is a good example. Allred’s involvement dates back to 1983, when she joined forces with other business leaders to build a world-class facility for the performing arts. Through the years, the group opened one of Southern California’s largest performing arts centers, now a sprawling campus containing two full-scale concert halls, a theater, studio space, education lab and a host of related amenities.

But Allred is equally moved by the good the Center does — particularly for children. All the money raised by The Guilds, the support organization that honored her at the March gala, funds educational programs for the center, which serve approximately 400,000 children each year. It has provided arts education on its campus, and in schools, to more than six million kids and educators.

“Schools bring children to watch events at the Center,” Allred said. “It’s not unusual to drive by and see 20 to 30 school buses in the parking lot.”

One of her most visible contributions ties together a passion for education with her standing in the pool and spa industry. In 2008, she funded the Zee Allred Aquatics Center and Olympic Pool at Chapman University, a private college in Orange, Calif.

“We now have top Olympic swimmers who have chosen to attend Chapman because they can train here in this state-of-the-art facility,” said university President James Doti.

Chapman found a meaningful way to thank Allred. For all the success, there was one major regret that bothered her over the years — not finishing college. That aspiration was fulfilled two years ago when she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Chapman University.

Today, Allred is still working full-time from home and PWP’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters. She had to decelerate a bit in 2005, when she suffered her own heart attack, but returned to both PWP and her community activities as soon as possible.

“Zee Allred is a force of nature — you have to see her in action to believe it,” Doti said.