“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.
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
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
“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.”
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.
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
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
“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
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.