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Meet Irv Zakheim

“From the time I started Zak Designs in 1976, we have been focused on making mealtime fun and colorful, and just a little more special for people around the world.”
- Irv Zakheim, Chairman & CEO Zak Designs

Whether it’s puka shell necklaces from Hawaii, embroidered goods from the Philippines, or dinnerware and drinkware from Asia, Irv Zakheim has learned the intricacies of the importing world and has put them to good use in building a business. Zakheim has been importing goods and distributing them to consumers around the world since the mid 1970’s. But as a child growing up in Los Angeles, he had more traditional dreams.

“I wanted to play professional baseball, then become a teacher and a coach,” Zakheim recalls. “That was my goal, and that’s where I was going.”

Zakheim worked toward accomplishing his goal with remarkable focus. He played baseball at California State University at Northridge, realizing his dream of playing professionally when he joined the Chicago White Sox. He also realized, however, that this determination could help him accomplish another dream, one that took shape in 1976 when he found a supplier of puka shells in the Philippines. Selling the trendy necklaces in Hawaii was Zakheim’s introduction into importing goods, a business he hasn’t strayed from since.

The partnership he developed in the Philippines helped him enter the embroidered goods market as well, diversifying from a fad that was quickly drying up. But when quotas started being placed on imported textiles, Zakheim knew that he would have to diversify again if he wanted to see the budding company reach the potential he knew existed.

“For whatever reason, I saw some children’s dinnerware that was made out of plastic, and I thought that it was really interesting,” Zakheim says.

With an uncommon eye for opportunities, Zakheim saw the potential in the untapped market. In 1985, he began looking for suppliers and distributors for the products, as well as something that no one else had thought to look for: licensors who would lend their characters to the products.

“We hit on something that really worked,” Zakheim says. “We served up a market at a time when no one really knew there was a market.”

In the years since, Zakheim has continued to find inventive ways to serve that market. Under his leadership, zak! designs has grown into today’s global leader in licensed dinnerware and drinkware. The company also stays at the forefront of emerging fashion, color, and design trends from around the world, incorporating those styles into modern, innovative tabletop and beverageware collections. With offices in strategic locations around the globe, zak!’s products are sold in nearly all channels of distribution worldwide.

Zakheim continues to be the primary driving force behind both the daily operations of zak! designs and its vision for the future. “I want us to continue to grow and take advantage of opportunities like we always have,” he says. “There is a great deal of potential that we have yet to achieve.” That determination was rewarded in 2006 when the U.S. Small Business Association named Zakheim the Washington State Small Business Person of the Year.

Zakheim’s achievements also expand well beyond the business he created. He is one of the founders of the Spokane South Little League, and has been involved in a wide range of local charities. He has served on the Board of Regents for Gonzaga University as well as the boards of many other academic, athletic, and non-profit organizations. He is a founding member and Director of the Rypien Foundation, and currently serves on the Community Cancer Fund Board of Directors as well as the Board of Directors for Spokane Youth Sports Association and the Board of Trustees for Gonzaga University.

One of the biggest contributions to his community, however, is the Zak!Charity Open. Established by Zakheim in 1999 as a way to help raise money for local children in need, the Zak!Charity Open became one of the premier charity events in the Inland Northwest. It has raised more than $5.7 million for local children’s charities, including the Children’s Miracle Network, YWCA of Spokane Child and Youth Services, Boys & Girls Clubs of Spokane County, and the Rypien Foundation. The impact of these efforts can be felt throughout the community in projects such as the Children’s Hospital Cinema, Open Air Terrace, and Rypien Children’s Emergency Center at Providence Sacred Heart.