Zelma “Zee” Allred never finished her bachelor’s degree, but spent much of the fortune she amassed from her company, Irvine-based Pool Water Products, funding the tuitions of low-income students at Orange-based Chapman University.
Allred “saw education as a transformative tool that young people could use to make a mark on the world,” Chapman economist and President Emeritus Jim Doti told the Business Journal. “She really wanted to help people who didn’t have the opportunity” to fund their own education.
Her contributions to Chapman earned her an honorary doctorate from the university in 2009, about 60 years after she dropped out of college to raise her two sons, Vern and Dean.
Allred, the CEO of one of the largest woman-owned businesses in Orange County, was also a donor of several arts-focused Orange County nonprofits, including the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the Philharmonic Society of OC, the OC Museum of Art and the Bowers Museum.
The local philanthropist, businesswoman and 2014 winner of the Business Journal’s Lifetime Achievement Award at its 20th Annual Women in Business Awards, died on Jan. 30 after years of suffering from myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood cancer. She was 94 years old.
Newport Beach Vacation
Allred, born on Sep. 7, 1928, grew up on a farm in Arizona.
She and her late ex-husband, Marvin, both attended college as chemistry majors. Only Marvin completed his degree since Allred dropped out to raise their two sons.
The family planned to move from Arizona to Northern California for Marvin’s doctorate program. Before settling down in NorCal, they vacationed in Newport Beach, which was largely undeveloped at the time.
Marvin received a job offer from a local construction company who needed his background in chemistry to educate pool owners about water treatments. He took the job and forwent his doctorate program, settling his family down in OC.
The couple soon noticed that the area lacked a widespread pool service provider.
“There was potential for a totally new industry, and we were in the right place at the right time,” Allred told the Business Journal during an interview in 2014.
Allred’s Pool Supply
Allred and Marvin took out a $500 loan to buy a truck and start a pool service route. In 1958, they established Allred’s Pool Supply, a retail store that offered pool water testing.
“We were the first in OC to offer that kind of service,” Allred said. “Our customers really liked the fact that we had proper lab equipment and knowledge.”
Three years later, Allred and Marvin started a wholesale line, Pool Water Products.
Allred took some time off work to take care of their newborn daughter, Carol. She returned to their pool businesses shortly after Marvin suffered a heart attack in 1968. He had open-heart surgery, but never fully recovered.
The couple eventually went through an amicable divorce, staying close until Marvin’s death in 2005.
In the divorce settlement, Allred gave up her 50% share of Allred’s Pool Supply and took full control of Pool Water Products.
She expanded Pool Water Products to multiple locations throughout the U.S. The company, which grew to generate over $100 million in annual revenue, became one of the largest woman-owned businesses in OC.
“It was a man’s world, but I was lucky to know most of them,” Allred said.
Being one of few woman CEOs at the time, however, did not come without challenges.
An insurance company once raised her premium because “they thought that as a woman, I was a liability,” she said.
To support her growing business, Allred relied on community resources.
She regularly attended Chapman University’s economic forecast conferences to better understand how the future of the economy may impact her company.
“It was gratifying to see a woman business leader who was interested in our work,” said Doti, who first met Allred in 1985.
Allred became a Chapman trustee about four years after she met Doti. She funded several projects at the university, including the Leatherby Libraries and aquatics center.
She annually contributed to university initiatives that helped students who wouldn’t be able to afford tuition without financial support.
“She saw an education, a Chapman education in particular, as a way for students to follow their dreams,” Doti said.
Meeting Drago Gligic
One of many Chapman educations Allred funded was that of her partner, Drago Gligic.
Gligic met Allred in 1999 on a voyage to the Mediterranean on a Crystal Cruises ship.
Gligic, then 29 years old, worked as a waiter on the cruise at the time. Allred was over 40 years his senior.
The two kept in touched after Allred disembarked the ship. A year later, Gligic moved into Allred’s Harbor Ridge home in Newport Beach.
Gligic never worked for Allred, but drove her to and from her office because she “absolutely hated driving,” Gligic told the Business Journal last week.
With Allred’s support, Gligic attended Chapman and earned two degrees: a bachelor’s in business and an MBA.
“She truly understood the value of education, which is actually priceless,” Gligic said. “It’s something that stays with you forever and can’t be taken from you.”
On top of Chapman, Allred donated to several arts- and research-focused organizations.
She served as a board director and donor to the Segerstrom Center of the Arts for decades.
Other organizations she supported include UCI Medical Research and Education Society, South Coast Repertory and Pacific Symphony.
Allred and Gligic were frequent guests at fundraising galas. She enjoyed dressing up in finery and socializing with other guests.
“Sometimes, we’d go to multiple galas in a day,” Gligic recalled with a laugh.
Her philanthropy also won her exclusive access to renowned institutions, including a private tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
On the tour, Allred wore the museum’s rumored-to-be cursed 45.5-carat Hope Diamond necklace, which is estimated to be worth over $250 million today. Rather than afraid of the tragic fates past owners of the necklace allegedly met—from decapitations to drownings—Allred was ecstatic to adorn the legendary diamond.
“The expression on her face was priceless,” Gligic said.
Three years before her death, Allred received her diagnosis for MDS.
Less than 20,000 new cases of MDS appear every year in the U.S., according to data from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The nonprofit also said that fewer than 60,000 people in the nation are currently living with or in remission from MDS.
Those afflicted with the disease possess an imbalance of healthy and defective blood cells, due to blood cells dying prematurely in their bone marrow. Symptoms of MDS include fatigue, shortness of breath, easy bruising and frequent infections.
People with MDS, who are classified from very low to very high risk, have median survival times that range from 8 months to 8 years.
Following her diagnosis, Allred received regular blood transfusions.
Her health, however, quickly deteriorated. She spent the remainder of her life wheelchair bound, under Gligic’s care.
In her last few months, Allred lost the strength to talk.
“She would smile every so often [when] I tried to comfort her, talk to her, hold her hand,” Gligic said.
Pacific View Cemetery
On Jan. 30, Allred’s health gave out. She experienced difficulty breathing that morning, and shortly after, died in her Harbor Ridge home.
Allred’s memorial service took place this month at Corona Del Mar’s Pacific View Cemetery, which she picked as her gravesite years prior.
“For years, she told me ‘I want to be buried here, with all my friends. I want to enjoy the ocean view,’” Gligic said. “She used to joke with me and say ‘they’re gonna bury you on top of me so we can enjoy the ocean together.’”
Allred is survived by Gligic, her three children and 16 grandchildren. Her company, Pool Water Products, currently counts 20 locations across California, Nevada, Florida, Arizona and Texas.
The pool in the aquatics center at Chapman still bears her name.
“When she was born, she was crying, and everybody else was smiling,” Gligic said. “But she lived her life in such a way that now, the people who knew her most are crying, and she’s up in heaven smiling because of all the love and support she’s received.”