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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Upfront: Zaki’s Intricate weave

Zaki Uddin KhalifaI hope everyone had a great summer. 

highlight of mine was spending an hour in
early August with High Point’s Zaki Uddin Khalifa, owner of a prominent Oriental rug distributorship closing soon.

Zaki is proof that North Carolina meets CNBC’s criteria as the nation’s best state for business. He arrived in the United States on July 4, 1976, a historic day. While he hails from a prominent Pakistani family, his homeland permitted emigrants to take out no more than $500. 

He hoped to set up shop in New York but concluded that everything cost too much there. He changed his focus to North Carolina, lured by High Point University Professor Carl Wheeless, who as a missionary taught at Zaki’s Methodist-sponsored school in Lahore, Pakistan.

Moving from a city of 12 million people to High Point was a culture shock for the  31-year-old Muslim. But the furniture industry hotbed was the right place, thanks to the Wheeless family and High Point Bank President Fred Alexander, who lent to Zaki. His first property loan was paid back in fewer than three years.

Zaki started with 40 rugs in 1977. When he moved into his current warehouse in 1999, he had 16,000. He has sold rugs ranging in price from less than $500 to half a million bucks. Elite designers, Hollywood stars and New York finance tycoons know Zaki.

We visited to discuss the sale of his 100,000-square-foot warehouse to Homelegance, a Fremont, Calif.-based furniture distributor with 10 sites in the U.S. and Canada. In 1977, High Point had 2 million square feet of furniture showrooms. It now has 12 million.

News of his departure isn’t new; in 2018, he told Business North Carolina that he would
sell the building in five years, then donate proceeds to Akhuwat, a Pakistani nonprofit
that provides interest-free microloans and free grade-school education. Beyond his age,
he says the sale is motivated by the
declining quality of his product. Few people in developing nations have the economic need or patience to spend a year or more
weaving an intricate rug.

His goal is to share 80% of his net worth with philanthropies, mainly serving needy Pakistanis. He and Rashida, who he married at age 55, founded the Al-Aqsa Community Clinic, a Burlington-based free health clinic, and Friends of Aabroo, which has provided education funds for thousands of Pakistani children.

While the sale has closed, Zaki will sell his remaining 4,000 rugs for several weeks at
what he calls “the lowest prices in the 46 years we’ve been in business.” It isn’t a typical going-out-of-business sale, for which the rug industry is deservedly notorious, he says.  Liquidators mark up prices by 35-fold, then offer discounts. Everyone overpays, he adds.

Zaki cites a complaint-free record from the Better Business Bureau, where he has been a board member. (One exception was a shopper who complained after Zaki wouldn’t let him bring his dog into the warehouse.)  

An early, frequent customer was a local Christian pastor who insisted on praying for Zaki’s salvation during each visit. One day, an Episcopal priest was at the store and expressed shock at the cleric’s aggressive style. Zaki responded that he respected the pastor’s conviction, so he always sat for a prayer. He remains a Muslim.

Having given more than 100 speeches about his life, Zaki says he emphasizes that ignorance, prejudice and arrogance are dangerous. Put together, they make a particularly deadly combination. He urges people to “come out of your comfort zone. Don’t just stick with a select group of friends.”

Zaki followed his own advice, to North Carolina’s benefit.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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