When Ryan Ellis ’03 graduated from Concordia Irvine, he decided not to pursue a career in basketball as his father and sister had done, and instead launched into the clothing industry. Today, Ellis is president of Travis Mathew, the hottest brand in men's apparel for work and play, whose fans include actor Mark Wahlberg, TV celebrity Chris Harrison and dozens of PGA players, surfers and pro athletes.
“I’ve always wanted to create comfortable stuff that looks good,” says Ellis. “[In the past] you could wear comfortable clothing and look like you just got out of bed, or nice clothing and it looks good but doesn't feel great. I’ve always wanted to combine the two.”
Ellis was the company’s first hire in 2007 when a small team began hammering out the vision to create golf clothing that didn’t look like baggy fluorescent balloons. The industry was ripe for change—but at first, Ellis wasn’t convinced he’d be involved.
“I didn’t have a lot of interest in golf,” he says. “But I believed in the concept and thought we had good people.”
With the brand’s rapid rise, Ellis served in almost every role at the company, which in 2017 was bought by Callaway Golf. As president, he remains “on the forefront of building our products,” he says. “I know what customers will say almost before they say it because I presented to customers every season.”
I learned a lot of my leadership through basketball, and a lot of it came from [CUI coach] Ken Ammann.
Ellis, who is 6’5”, came to Concordia in 2001 looking to play one more year of basketball before heading into the real world.
“I was looking for a coach-to-player relationship that was less dictatorial, less Bobby Knight style” than what he experienced at another college, Ellis says. “The second I met [CUI head men’s basketball] Coach Ammann, I loved him. He was super personable. I could see his vision of what he was trying to do, and it was exactly what I wanted.”
While Ellis was offered full scholarships and a starter role elsewhere, he chose CUI because of Ammann’s candor and vision. “Coach Ammann was straight up front with me and said, ‘Look, you’ll probably come off the bench for us,’” Ellis remembers. “He had the gall to say that to me in the recruiting, and that was brilliant. The coaches I had dealt with in the past would tell you one thing and do another. I just wanted to know where I stood.”
The Eagles won more games that year, 36, than any other college team.
“It was incredible,” says Ammann. “At the national tournament we were just hoping to win a game or two, and then we won the whole thing, 88-84 in overtime.”
Ellis was a huge part of the team’s success, posting four three-pointers in the championship game, and setting Concordia Irvine’s record for three-point percentage in a single season, which still stands.
“He was always a good leader, great with people, could relate well to every single guy on the team,” Ammann says. “He had a rare quality. It’s one reason he’s so good at business.”
No Eagles team before or since has generated better chemistry or more enduring relationships, Ammann says. “It was a special group,” he says. “We pride ourselves on having close teams and great chemistry, but that year is going to be hard to beat. Those guys still go on vacation every year, a big group of them.”
“Concordia was awesome,” Ellis says. “All the teachers I had were very good about getting buy-in about what we were doing, explaining what we would accomplish and had good plans so we could all have success.”
After turning his tassel, Ellis made a conscious decision not to play basketball in Europe as his father and sister had done for a combined 16 years.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be a great professional player, and I didn’t want to return at 27 without money,” he says. “I felt I needed to go out and start my career.”
Aiming to work in the apparel industry for an action sports company, he found it very difficult to get his foot in the door. So he started his apparel career in retail, taking a job as an assistant manager at a popular large apparel company at one of their key locations. He did so well that the company gave him his own store after three months. Four months after that, he opened another store doing triple the sales volume.
“I realized that if I kept doing well, they would keep promoting me and then I’d get to a pay level where it’s tough to leave,” he says.
He wanted to be on the buying side, helping to create products rather than just sell them. “At the store level you have zero control,” Ellis says. “The product shows up and you put it out. I thought I knew what would work in stores. I thought if I got on that side I could make better choices.”
After a stint running retail for PacSun, Ryan finally got his break, landing a job with an Australian surf company. He opened and built their first retail store, then was promoted to sales professional and ultimately sales manager—all in his first year. While the U.S. company was having success, Ellis found himself out of a job on the cusp of his wedding when the Aussie company shut down its U.S. operations due to lack of funding in Australia. Around that time, Ellis got a call from a yet-to-be-formed golf clothing company which wanted him to run their sales.
I looked at golf clothing as boring. They said, ‘That’s the point. We have the idea to make golf clothing better.
“I looked at golf clothing as boring,” Ellis says. “They said, ‘That’s the point. We have the idea to make golf clothing better and something you want to wear, not just a uniform you golf in.’”
Still, the initial sketches “didn’t do much for me,” Ellis admits. “It was a shirt with a pocket on it. I didn’t understand performance fabric at the time.”
Upon calling country clubs and resorts to gauge interest in a new brand, the positive response shocked him.
“I thought, there is a massive niche here.” He concluded, “If there’s anyone under fifty playing golf, we have something.”
The team began designing shirts in consultation with customers, incorporating feedback which was “extremely valuable to the company,” Ellis says. “We were able to avoid pitfalls.”
The first line caught immediate interest, but the second line, designed without the benefit of customer feedback, flopped.
“I went to our guys and said I’d like to cancel this whole line and keep selling the first line. We need to re-look at direction,” Ellis recalls.
The third line went back to Travis Mathew’s distinctives—hip work-and-play style and feel—and by 2010, the growth curve was heading upward. Ellis moved from sales and merchandising to managing the creative process.
“I wasn’t Mr. Fashion,” he attests, but he had a sixth sense about fabrics. “I don’t know if I have sensitive skin, but I'm the type of person that after going surfing, I can’t put on a t-shirt without taking a shower. I’m the same way with fabrics. I can sense and feel right away if a fabric is right or not, too itchy, too drapey. From day one I thought there were so many inconsistencies in brands from one shirt to another. We tried to create those consistencies so if you like one shirt, you’ll like the others we make.”
Travis Mathew, he says, pays more attention to fabrications than any other brand he knows, and offers more than fifty combinations of polyester, cotton, Spandex, Tencel and other materials designed to withstand shrinkage, wrinkling and fading, while drying quickly and being easy to treat. Travis Mathew has redefined performance, he says, building products made for travel, comfort and easy wash and wear.
Ammann, now a fan of the brand, calls Travis Mathew clothing “the best stuff.”
“It feels good on your skin. It’s an incredible product,” Ammann says. “My wife gets mad at me because I keep bringing those polos home. They look good, they feel good. I don’t know what else you want.”
Ellis credits Ammann for helping to shape his leadership style.
“I learned a lot of my leadership through basketball, and a lot of it came from Ken Ammann and how he led,” Ellis says. “You don’t have to yell and belittle people to get the most out of them. That’s old-school thinking. There’s a way to manage people more effectively and get the most out of them and have them respect you.”
From Ammann’s point of view, “It’s never an accident when someone achieves something great. It’s talent and a lot of hard work. It’s great to see Ryan have a clear goal and a strong career and achieve it at such an early age.”
Ryan was recipient of the 2019 Alumnus of the Year: Professional Achievement Award.