When Ryan Ellis and Leif Sunderland joined TravisMathew, they were early in their careers and the company was just getting started. Today, TravisMathew has become a leading sportswear brand at key retailers, has a robust e-commerce business, and has over 40 company-owned stores. Below, Ryan and Leif reflect on our mission and how the brand has evolved, share some of the challenges they’re facing, and discuss the company culture they’re building as the team grows.
Ryan: TravisMathew is a company that was built on true substance, finding white space in the apparel industry and serving a clear need. What’s unique about our company is we have combined an incredible product with a strong attention to detail with an aspirational brand that makes you feel like it’s more than just a polo or a hat or a pair of shorts. Our brand is fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously while still delivering products with an elevated look and quality. Men have gotten so much more sophisticated with how they dress and what they see as quality. We have been at the forefront of that movement.
That’s really what connects me to the company. Since I was young, I’ve always gravitated toward comfortable clothing—but sometimes that clothing looked like you just rolled out of bed. We’re creating something here that is extremely comfortable, but looks dressy enough for any part of your day—work, workout, or going out. I’m also proud of us for standing for progress and inclusivity. We describe our age demographic as 18-80, and to us “cool” is approachable, not exclusive. My first few years in retail, I worked for a company where it felt only certain people were allowed to work or shop there, and I never liked that. TravisMathew is the opposite. As we like to say, “We’re having a party, and you’re invited.”
Leif: That company culture is part of why I’m here, too. I don’t want to work only with people who think exactly like me or do the exact same things I do, and TravisMathew brings together so many different backgrounds, different perspectives, different ways we spend our personal time. Ryan and I, for example—we’re both competitive, we both come from sports. But there’s plenty we don’t have in common. It’s just a very open environment, where people from diverse backgrounds can all gain experience and opportunities, and grow their careers.
And as Ryan said, that mindset also comes through in our product. So many brands, you look at their clothes and you might think, “Oh, I could never wear that.” We bridge that gap between aspirational and approachable. We want to bring people along—so they feel they’re a part of something, rather than wearing something that’s a stretch for them. Anyone should be able to put on our clothes and feel better about how they look.
Ryan: We’re pretty unique in that we started the brand without actual product, just ideas—we went to customers and said, “Here are our ideas. What do you think?” Then we’d take that feedback and go back to the drawing board and finalize the product. My role was centered around sales, but selling was not forcing products on a customer: We learned what their needs were and then worked with the Product team to help them rebuild with our vision and customer feedback. This collaboration with customers is a unique dynamic that really allowed us to thrive. After a few years, we changed the design structure and had Design reporting into me—so instead of getting feedback halfway through the process, we got it upfront and continually as we built the collection. To this day, we’re one of few companies where the Merchandising team is the driving force in product decisions; the sales and creative perspectives are both essential.
Leif: There’s also been an evolution in terms of attention to detail in fabric, which really came out of Ryan’s passion for it. If you look at a polo in the early 2000s, it was baggy, it was 100% polyester, it was in a bright color. We wanted to be different; our original concept was clothing you can wear on and off the golf course. But some brands went to the extreme with that—100% cotton, super slim fit. That only appeals to a small subset of customers. We were able to strike a balance—it might be a cotton and polyester blend, and a little slimmer or a little shorter sleeves—so things did work off the course, but still performed on it.
Ryan: Part of the evolution has been quality control, as well. In the first few years, it was those new fabrics and fits that propelled us. Today, we’re consistent in a way I think we weren’t back then. I remember looking at our polos at one point and seeing 15 different shades of black. One had a hint of green, one was more red. We spent a lot of time staring at black Pantone chips, finding the perfect one, and getting all of our product aligned. And it’s not enough for the color to be great on the day you buy it—we also want to make sure it doesn’t fade, it’s easy to treat, all of that. We don’t accept “fine,” even if that means taking a loss by rejecting product that’s not up to our standards. Perfect is an illusion, but we’re going to do everything possible to be the best in the industry.
Leif: Overall, we haven’t drastically changed who we are. All of this was in our roots. But I think one thing we’ve done well is adapt. We might lean into golf during a certain period, or humor, or a more elevated look. We’re a true lifestyle brand, and that means being fluid and dynamic. That’s part of what’s allowed us to grow so quickly—we’re not trying to stick to one niche and serve only a small segment of people.
Leif: There’s definitely a culture of ownership here. You could use lots of different words for that—relentless, driven—but at the core, people tend to be successful here when they treat their job like their own business. Certainly today that will look different depending on the position. A decade ago, we told everyone to be entrepreneurial; now we have more processes and structure in place, and it’s about identifying opportunities to improve on what we’re already doing. And some people are more comfortable executing than innovating; we want to be a place for both as we grow. But I do think even now, the mentality of ownership is thriving. And if you’re working on our new women’s line, for example, where we’re just getting started, we do need people to come in and take the bull by the horns.
Something else about our culture—and I feel like Ryan has done a really good job of leading by example on this—is that we’re never afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” We might not have the perfect answer right away, but we’re absolutely willing to dive in and learn. We’re not stuck in our ways. And we listen to our people.
Ryan: Right—several of us on the leadership team grew our own careers at this company, so we’re doing a lot of things for the first time. We aren’t sitting here going, “Hey, we know how to do this.” We’re confident in the vision we have, but just like we have to listen to our customers, we have to listen to our team members, too. We need to adapt with them. It’s not enough anymore to hit revenue targets and create a great brand. We need to keep people engaged.
That means learning how to communicate with the team transparently; it means giving them opportunities to make an impact. And it means building empathy into our culture—flexibility is really critical. If you’ve got something going on with your kids or your dog and you might be a little off that week, you should be able to feel comfortable saying that. Maybe you need to leave early and catch up in the evening, or work from home a couple of times a week. When the company is small and everyone is going 100 miles an hour, those adaptations can be harder. But now, we have enough people to start figuring that piece out.
Leif: As Ryan said, it can be a challenge to lead the team through something you haven’t faced before. But I feel like it’s also given us an opportunity to do things in our own way, rather than falling into the trap of just following what every other company has done: “This is what you’re supposed to do at this size; this is the org structure you should have.” We’re able to approach things from an outsider’s perspective. The women’s line is a good example—the conventional wisdom would have been to start that a decade ago. But by taking our time and not rushing in, we were able to focus on evolving the brand on the men’s side, and now we have a much better understanding of what we want the women’s line to be and we’ve really set it up for success.
Ryan: Absolutely, and it’s another opportunity for us as leaders to listen and learn. Leif and I aren’t women; we need to trust our employees and customers as we build this. That’s one of the reasons we started with direct-to-consumer sales; if we’d gone wholesale from the start, we wouldn’t have been able to pivot based on customer feedback, the calendar is too long. And we’ve made some major additions already: When we first launched women’s, it was lifestyle-focused, but our customers told us they wanted golf, as well. They’d been waiting years for it! We are now adding golf and active to the collection.
Another challenge is growing pains. This is a complex, global organization now, with a lot of technology. If something went wrong in the old days, it was one system; we could figure it out ourselves. But that doesn’t scale. Now we have a lot more layers—before we get to manufacturing and marketing and sales, there’s finance, demand planning. There are 20 steps, and you need 50 people to be in the loop. It can create some frustration, but what it’s teaching us is prioritization. We know what’s most important—people, product, and brand—and we make sure to nail that. That’s the foundation of our company. But process is important, too, which is why we’re hiring some great process experts and working so hard to improve on that front.
Ryan: It’s funny—in every phase we’ve gone through as a company, I’ve had that feeling of, “This is just the beginning.” But this is an especially exciting moment. We’ve built a lot of brand equity, and we have an incredible roadmap. We’ve doubled in size over the last three years, and we’re expecting to do that again in the next three or four. I think this next chapter will be about being bigger and better, not only for our customers, but for our people. And we have the resources now to do that.
So the opportunity to grow is huge. Every position we hire for today is going to have more responsibility a couple of years from now. And we’re being proactive about supporting that—building transparency around what those paths will look like and what a team member needs to do to achieve their goals. With the right mindset, you’re really going to thrive.
Leif: For sure. I think joining this team, maybe being the first person in a role—that’s always been a great opportunity to pave the way for what your career could look like. And that’s still true; you’re going to have a chance to put your mark on your position and tell us what we don’t know. But now, we can give you a much better roadmap, so you have a lot of support to figure out where you’re going. We know where we’re headed as a company, we have a brand that’s stronger than ever, and we have the tools in place to help you succeed.
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