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CEO Gives It All Up to Share with the Next Generation

James G. Ellis, Associate Professor, Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California

Some say Jim Ellis gave it all up to teach. Whatever he gave up, Ellis says, pales in comparison to what he gained: the chance to make life better for the thousands of students whose lives and careers he's influenced since resigning in 1997 as CEO of Port O'Call, an upscale home accessory retailer in Pasadena, to become an associate professor of marketing in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

The following year, in addition to his teaching duties, Ellis became the director of the Family Business Program, established to help family-owned businesses in various states of succession, estate, and strategic planning.

"I don't believe you can be a good teacher," he says, "if you don't have connections outside the classroom."

In December 2003, Ellis was named associate dean of undergraduate programs and, six months later, became vice dean external affairs, where he administers curriculum, admissions, advising, and student programs for 4,000 undergraduates.

From Golf Course to College Courses

In the classroom, Ellis taught sales force management, advertising, retail management and basic marketing. Named Professor of the Year by numerous campus organizations, he became an administrator because he has a passion for kids. "If I could make their lives better," he says, "I was prepared to do it. If I can do something for 250 students in the classroom, how much better that I can do it for 4,000 undergraduates."

Ellis's life today is a far cry from his own undergraduate days at the University of New Mexico, when he set his sights on becoming a professional golfer.

Born in Tacoma, Washington, Ellis was in junior high school when his family moved to New Mexico where his father founded a bank, and later moved again to La Hoya, California, to found a bigger bank. Ellis says he majored in business because "the easiest classes to take were business, and there was no foreign language requirement."

And, besides, he still wanted to be a golf pro.

"What happens if you don’t make it in golf?" asked his father, suggesting that he apply to business school "just in case."

Ellis applied to the four most competitive schools he could think of and was accepted to all of them.

"I had no choice," he says. "I had to go to one of them."

The CEO Trajectory

Following graduation from Harvard Business School in 1970, Ellis joined Broadway Department Stores, rising to vice president of merchandising. Since 1983, he has been vice president of merchandising for Miller's Outpost, another department store chain, and been involved in a number of entrepreneurial ventures, including

  • Chairman of Socks du Jour, a startup retail chain of 23 stores
  • Chairman of Comfort Center Mattress Shops
  • Director of Sideout Sports, a southern California volleyball apparel manufacturer
  • Director of Forecast Homes, a home construction business
  • Founding Director, Professional Business Bank in Pasadena, California
  • Owner/Officer of Mayco Colors, ceramic paint manufacturer based in Columbus, Ohio

Recruited by a search firm, Ellis served from 1985 to 1990 as president/CEO of American Porsche Design. Working directly for the Porsche family, he opened their first retail store in the world in 1989. The following year, rather than relocate when the company decided to move its operations back to Europe, he became CEO of Port O'Call.

A Grander Calling

Ellis was still at Port O'Call when, in 1996, he turned 50 and his colleagues in Young Presidents' Organization challenged him to think about what he wanted to do for the next 25 years of his life. Ellis told them he'd probably continue to be an entrepreneur and keep running companies.

"No," they said. "There's a grander calling for you. Go figure it out."

Ellis came back and said he would do four things, all under the category of sharing his experience.

"I told them I would share in four ways: teaching, speaking, writing and consulting." They said, "Great, but I had no idea where to start."

Serendipitously, Ellis had lunch one day with a fellow who mentioned that USC was looking for a full-time marketing professor.

"But I don't have a Ph.D.," he said.

"You have an MBA. It's a teaching, not a research job."

Twelve Ph.D.s interviewed for the job. Ellis was chosen and has never looked back.

"Yes," he admits, when asked if the career change involved a pay cut, "but that's absolutely not what you look at or think about in that situation."

The Benefits of Giving Back

Ellis was no stranger to giving back to entrepreneurship before he went into teaching.

As a successful CEO, he frequently answered calls from startup entrepreneurs for advice on business plans, help with financing, or to donate equipment.

Prior to serving two terms as chairman of the San Gabriel Valley YPO Chapter, he won the award for best educational programs in the world as chairman of his chapter’s education committee. He also served as YPO regional vice president and on its international board of directors. A frequent presenter at YPO and Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization educational programs, he is currently a member of World Presidents’ Organization.

In 1997, he was elected chairman of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.

"The Chamber of Commerce was another way to connect to the business world," he says."I encourage my students to give back to the community because I believe so much benefit comes from that. I tell our students that YPO is a great goal for them. You don’t know the benefits of giving back until you get involved."

Ellis says service on several nonprofit boards has provided him rewarding opportunities to use his business experience to move a concept forward. For the last six years, he’s been chair of a children’s museum. He has also served as a director for the YMCA of Los Angeles and the Boy Scouts and is a former chair of the local chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

The father of five, two of whom are now entrepreneurs themselves, Ellis and his wife have established a family foundation to help imbue the spirit of giving in the next generation. However, if Ellis isn’t spending his free time with the kids, you can probably still find him out playing golf.

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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