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The Force is with Zak Designs

Irv Zakheim, owner of Zak Designs, holds a piece of the “Star Wars” merchandise his company designs. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Irv Zakheim, owner of Zak Designs, holds a piece of the “Star Wars” merchandise his company designs. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Like a modern-day sorcerer’s apprentice, Irv Zakheim turned $8,000 into a business now worth more than $200 million.

OK, a little mermaid deserves some of the credit.

Zakheim’s Zak Designs markets all manner of plastic dinnerware and accessories for children and adults.

And thanks to a licensing agreement for “Star Wars” products, 2015 promises to be the Airway Heights company’s most lucrative year. Or maybe that should be “Luke-rative.”

Either way, clearly the force is with Zakheim.

During a recent interview at his corporate headquarters, Zakheim recalled his brief professional baseball career, discovering what made him happy, and his first of many licensing contracts with Disney.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Zakheim: Beverly Hills, California.

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Zakheim: Sports. I played basketball, baseball and football all the way through high school. Then I played basketball and baseball at L.A. City College, baseball at Cal State, Northridge, and two years of pro ball – second base – with the White Sox organization.

S-R: How much did you earn as a minor-league ballplayer?

Zakheim: The first year I earned $500 a month, and $600 a month the second year, plus an $8,000 signing bonus.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in college?

Zakheim: I liked psychology. My goal was to be a counselor and coach when I got done playing ball. I really liked working with kids.

S-R: What events changed the direction of your life?

Zakheim: The first one was getting released in baseball. I had chances to keep playing, but I decided it was time to move on. Professional sports is a fictional life. At some point you have to settle down and start your real life. The other event that changed my life was when I started this business and enjoyed it, even though I wasn’t making any money.

S-R: Tell me about that.

Zakheim: I sold insurance while I was in the minors, and did that full time after I left baseball. I started out with an L.A. company, then moved to Hawaii. I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t like it at all. So I’d spend my free time on the beach selling puka shell necklaces. I enjoyed that so much that I quit the insurance business, spent three months in the Philippines making connections, then moved back to L.A. and started importing embroidered fabrics.

S-R: Did any lessons you learned in the minors prove valuable when you started Zak Designs?

Zakheim: Team sports teach you how to get along with people and handle ups and downs. In baseball, you can get three hits in a game, but if you strike out in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, you had a bad day. You have to get over that quickly. Business is the same way. Everyone has ups and downs, but those don’t affect me the way they do some people.

S-R: Was your import business successful from the start?

Zakheim: No, it was very tough. At the end of each year, I had to decide whether or not to continue. And while I was trying to put two dollars together, a friend of mine was doing really well in insurance and kept asking me to join him.

S-R: What was the turning point?

Zakheim: The first was in the mid-’80s – almost 10 years after I started the business – when I finally felt like we could succeed. The second, bigger turning point was in 1989, when “The Little Mermaid” came out, and our business took off.

S-R: How did you get an inside track with Disney?

Zakheim: It goes back to a 20-year high school class reunion I attended in 1987. One of my classmates was Ross Bagdasarian, whose dad created Alvin and the Chipmunks. I asked Ross if we could put Alvin on our dinnerware, and he gave me the name of his agent. Turned out the agent not only licensed Alvin – he also did Pee-wee Herman. That’s what got us into all of the stores.

S-R: And the Disney connection?

Zakheim: I was showing my products at a California trade show when someone came by and asked, “Are you interested in working with Disney?” because nobody was doing what we were doing. And I said, “Let me think about it. YES!” I negotiated a license to the movie “Dick Tracy,” and they said, “If we give you ‘Tracy,’ you have to take this other property,” which turned out to be “The Little Mermaid.”

S-R: And?

Zakheim: Target agreed to carry “The Little Mermaid” dinnerware, because it was so hot, but said they won’t buy anything else once that was done. Then Disney re-released “Jungle Book” and “101 Dalmatians” along with some new films, and within a year we had a 4-foot section of our products in every Target.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane?

Zakheim: I married Angela Long, a girl I met in L.A. who happened to be from Spokane, and we started a family. At the time, I had no idea what quality of life was, but I’d heard about it. After the 1992 Rodney King riots, we decided to move up here, because I could run my business from anywhere. I brought six employees along, and three of them are still with us.

S-R: Besides Spokane, where do you have offices?

Zakheim: We have a showroom in New York, an office in Bentonville, Arkansas – Wal-Mart’s hometown – and a person in Minnesota. We also have offices in Canada, Taiwan, the U.K., Europe, Australia and China.

S-R: Where are your products designed?

Zakheim: Right here in Airway Heights. I have a whole design team.

S-R: Do you design anything?

Zakheim: I give input and approve everything, but I don’t design it.

S-R: What are your strengths?

Zakheim: Management, vision, being able to make deals, and having good contacts that I’ve built over the years.

S-R: Does Zak Designs manufacture anything?

Zakheim: No, we consign everything. We don’t want ownership in factories, because that impedes our growth. But we’ve worked with some factories in China for 25 years, and our orders account for 70 to 80 percent of their production.

S-R: Did the recession impact your business?

Zakheim: It had a big impact, especially in ’08 and ’09. We laid off 25 percent of our workforce to get through it, and now we’re doing more sales than we’ve ever done.

S-R: What else affects your business?

Zakheim: A good movie, as opposed to a bad one.

S-R: What movie didn’t work out as well as you’d hoped?

Zakheim: “Hunchback (of Notre Dame).” It wasn’t bad, but it was overpromoted. When we forecast wrong, we end up with a lot of unsold stock.

S-R: I assume there’s less risk with a movie like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Did you have to compete for that license?

Zakheim: We pretty much control our (product) category, so we don’t have much competition.

S-R: What “Star Wars” products have you come up with?

Zakheim: It’s the biggest line we’ve ever done. Besides our core kids products – dinnerware, drinkware – we have a full range of ceramic mugs and adult glassware. We expect it to be a good, long-term property.

S-R: Are there licenses that got away?

Zakheim: In the early going, we didn’t get Barney. Four years later, we bought that company. We didn’t get Power Rangers and Pokémon, but both those companies ended up going out of business. If all you have is one real hot property, it’s very difficult to manage. You need a variety of products, so when one cools down, it doesn’t kill you.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Zakheim: No two days are alike.

S-R: What do you like least?

Zakheim: Meetings.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Zakheim: Becoming a major player globally.

S-R: Do you have what you’d call a business philosophy?

Zakheim: Yes. Treat everyone with respect, whether they are the CEO, an accountant or whatever. That’s how you build credibility.

S-R: Looking back, would you do anything differently?

Zakheim: No, because you learn from mistakes. My goal is to never make the same mistake twice.

S-R: Any favorite customer reactions?

Zakheim: It’s fun to go into a store and watch how kids react to our section. Our motto is “Makes Mealtime Fun!”

S-R: What’s on deck after “Star Wars”?

Zakheim: Marvel movies like the “Avengers,” and Warner Brothers movies like “Batman v. Superman.”

S-R: What about you would surprise people who know you?

Zakheim: People in Spokane would be surprised that I used to be a professional athlete, and people in L.A. would be surprised I have my own business. It’s like I’ve had two lives.

S-R: Last question: When you invite guests over for dinner, do they eat off plastic plates?

Zakheim: Yes, they do. (laugh) We also have ceramic dinnerware we’ve made in the past – some Christmas things.

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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