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Trustee Member, Alumnus Cliff Ensley Reflects on Taking Challenges, Making an Impact
In 1978, Cliff Ensley ’69, ’70, G’71 had an idea to start his own business and just $2,500 to do it. He was used to taking on challenges—there was no stopping him.
Growing up, he struggled with a learning disability—at a time when learning disabilities were not recognized—and then went on to earn three degrees at Syracuse University: in economics and industrial engineering and an MBA. A walk-on student-athlete, he finished his playing years as the last three-sport letter winner—in football, lacrosse and wrestling—at Syracuse.
With his education, a perseverance built on the playing fields and experience in retail luggage sales, Ensley launched his idea for a wholesale luggage company, still a vital business more than 40 years on. He is founder and chief executive officer of Leisure Merchandising Corporation, a luggage and accessories manufacturing business.
“I’ve learned that if there’s something you’re afraid to do, go ahead and do it because the worst thing that can happen is that you fail. Failure is not a bad thing; it teaches you resilience and it keeps your expectations low,” says Ensley, who was elected to the Syracuse University Board of Trustees in 2015 and was named to the Board’s Executive Committee in May. “And when you succeed, you can enjoy the flowers along the way. It’s not just the goal you’re going for, you better enjoy getting there.”
Coming out of the uncertain times for the travel industry during COVID-19, his business has emerged strong through careful oversight.
Ensley, who describes himself as “semi-retired” from the business, checks in regularly and stepped in more over the past year due to the pandemic. With many factories closed in Asia and supply lines disrupted during the crisis, he helped monitor finances and kept in touch with key customers.
Whether it’s connecting with customers, employees or networks in the industry, Ensley believes it’s those relationships that are always vital to keep the business thriving.
“It’s about getting along with people, and that’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing,” Ensley says.
His business acumen and his ability to connect with others have made him well-respected among peers in the industry. As a member and past chair of the Travel Goods Association (TGA), Ensley was once again named association chair in June.
“Cliff is the only TGA board chairman to ever serve two terms, an honor which speaks for itself and represents how we—as an association and industry—view him as a leader,” says Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association.
“His proven track record in the travel goods industry, strong relationships with buyers and manufacturers, and vision and foresight into ‘what’s next’ have all benefited our industry as a whole through his generous contributions of time on our board,” Pittenger says. “Beyond that, his energy is palpable in every meeting or call. Cliff’s presence is powerful; when he’s among our team and his fellow board members, it’s clear. Really, his charm, smarts and tact have helped lead us through some challenging times over the past several years.”
His insights and strengths have been built on years of gaining an understanding of his challenges and a lifelong drive to succeed.
As a youngster, he didn’t talk much, and reading was difficult. “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was,” says Ensley. “I learned that if I take my time, I can get my words out and I can read.”
When he began playing sports, “I didn’t have to do a lot of talking in athletics. I could just go out and play the game, so that helped me build confidence and overcome a lot of those learning disabilities,” he says.
And in some ways, Ensley says those learning disabilities made him stronger—teaching him not to give up, gaining in his self-confidence and taking on challenges.
In high school, he had been looking at smaller colleges, including a lacrosse appointment offer from West Point, but he wanted to see if he could test his athletic abilities at a major university.
During his senior year, he took a trip upstate to Syracuse, with his high school sports scrapbook under his arm, on a cold, snowy February day. He caught up with lacrosse coach Roy Simmons Sr. at Manley Field House and showed him his scrapbook. “He was impressed,” Ensley says. “He showed me around campus and then took me to his home where his wife, Millie, fixed us lunch and he talked about Syracuse.”
Afterwards, Simmons drove him back to the airport and told him, “‘Now, Cliff, if I roll up my sleeves and get you into Syracuse, you’ve got to promise me you won’t go to the Point,’” Ensley says. “And I said, ‘Well, coach, if you can get me into Syracuse, I’ll be here.’”
Simmons rolled up sleeves, and Ensley kept his promise.
When he arrived on campus that August, he tried out for the football team as a walk-on with 10 other students. After the first several days, the others had dropped out, so he was the only one left and made the starting freshman team as safety. That winter he was on the freshman wrestling team, and in the spring, he played lacrosse and spring football.
During spring football, coach Ben Schwartzwalder offered him a three-year football scholarship. By his sophomore year, he was starting on the varsity football team.
“In my junior year, the opposing quarterbacks decided to throw the ball to me a lot, so I made a lot of interceptions and I started returning punts,” says Ensley, who was an honorable mention All-American in football and captain and MVP of the lacrosse team. He was also the University Athlete of the Year in 1969—an outstanding accomplishment that puts him among other distinguished recipients, including Larry Csonka, Floyd Little, Dave Bing, Jim Nance, Ernie Davis and Jim Brown, to name a few.
Ensley valued the camaraderie with his teammates and the way they played with heart. “We became friends. We had our victories and our losses and we were all trying to achieve one thing: a win for Syracuse and that’s a win for all of us,” Ensley says.
When it came to deciding on his major, Ensley chose economics—a nod to his father’s work as executive director of the Joint Economic Committee for Congress in the late 1940s and 1950s and in banking. He also enrolled in a five-year program for engineering, building on his strengths in math and science.
Ensley, who was also in the U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity, earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
After pursuing an MBA at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, he was commissioned with the ROTC and was hired as a luggage buyer at Abraham & Straus department store in New York City for about a year, when the Army called him to serve in 1972. After his military commitment, he went back into retail and later became a sales manager for a luggage wholesaler.
When he decided to start his own business, “people said, ‘You can’t do that.’ But I’ve always learned that with hard work, integrity, honesty, being trustworthy and getting along with people things have worked out for me,” Ensley says.
Ensley got the backing of an investor and worked with factory owners in Asia, who provided credit lines, and he began to build the business. He continued to evolve the company, which sells to major retailers such as Macy’s, Belk, Hudson’s Bay and Kohl’s, along with Amazon and T.J. Maxx.
Ensley reflects on what he learned at Syracuse, which has helped him over the years in his business. “My industrial engineering degree helped with factory evaluation. When I go into factories, I can pretty much tell if it’s going to be efficient or not,” he says. “And an MBA taught me how to be a little creative with financing.”
Ensley also credits the company’s success to Sue, his wife of 20 years, who was a buyer for Bloomingdale’s and Kohls, before working for Leisure after their marriage. The couple has traveled around the world, looking for designs for their products. Sue’s design for London Fog “hit the nail on the head, and everything she has designed for London Fog has just blown off the shelves the past 15 years,” he says. “She is probably the best designer in our industry.”
In the 1990s, Ensley became a member of the Travel Goods Association, and, in 2009, he joined the board. Along with two other members, the three brought innovation to the association’s International Travel Goods Show, tripling its square footage with more than 300 exhibitors. “Michele, her staff and our board really performed well together,” Ensley says.
During the pandemic, the association had their last trade show in March 2020, just before others were cancelled. “The next two years are going to be rebounding years for the travel goods industry,” Ensley says. “So it’s about helping guide the association back to 2019 levels and beyond.”
“As travel returns, so does the travel goods industry, and having Cliff at our board’s helm will both inspire and provide comfort to his fellow board and association members,” Pittenger says. “Cliff’s astute insights regarding retail and his ability to strategically pivot will, undoubtedly, further lead us to evaluate how we as a trade association can best serve our members and continue to bridge the gap between retailers and manufacturers, as we have for decades.”
Over the years, even with a busy company to run, Cliff and Sue have kept strong ties with Syracuse University. “I bleed Orange. And to many of my family and friends, I’m known as either ’Cuse or Uncle ’Cuse,” Ensley says. “Sue loves Syracuse too. So much of what we’ve been able to do for Syracuse is really because of what she’s done to build Leisure.”
The couple has provided lead gifts for the establishment of the Ensley Athletic Center, the Chris Gedney Endowed Football Scholarship and the Orange Forever Endowed Memorial Fund, which provides “Block S” blankets as keepsakes to the families of every deceased student-athlete.
The idea for the Orange Forever fund developed in 2007 after the couple attended the funeral of Ensley’s college roommate, teammate and closest friend Tommy George. The two had kept in touch all their lives, and he was asked to speak at George’s funeral. Ensley realized he wanted the University to be represented at the funeral of any former student-athlete.
The blanket comes with a remembrance card, from the former student-athlete’s team members, saying “You’ll always be remembered.”
“Once you’ve played for the Orange, then that’s forever—and you’ll always be in the hearts of your teammates,” Ensley says.
The couple has also worked to recognize and celebrate the legacies of Ensley’s former football coach, Schwartzwalder, and former lacrosse coaches, Roy Simmons Sr. ’26 and Roy Simmons Jr. ’54, with commemorative statues in front of the Ensley Center.
They have also provided support to initiatives in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, the Whitman School and the Maxwell School.
“I am always proud and honored to have had a chance to participate in the athletic programs, get a Syracuse education and be part of Phi Delt,” Ensley says. “Sue and I are fortunate to be able to give back. And hopefully, we’re helping current and future SU student-athletes become better students, athletes and citizens. In addition, Leisure has been able to be support a variety of organizations over the years.”
Ensley, who has a son, Scott, and a daughter, Jennifer, and four grandchildren, also gives of his time on the University’s Board of Trustees for the Executive, Advancement and External Affairs, Athletics, and Facilities committees. He received the Dritz Rookie Trustee of the Year Award in 2018 for outstanding Board service and the Letter Winner of Distinction Award from Syracuse University Athletics and the Varsity Club in 1993.
Ensley enjoys his time as a Board member and notes the important work being done by Chancellor Kent Syverud, Athletics Director John Wildhack, Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation Mike Haynie and Vice President and Chief Campus Facilities Officer Pete Sala, and so many others, to further the University, in the ever-changing landscape of higher education and collegiate athletics. “My work with the Board gives me a chance to meet other Syracuse alums and people who love Syracuse,” he says.
In all of his endeavors, Ensley tries to live by the words of poet Nathalia Crane:
“You cannot choose your battlefield,
The gods do that for you;
But you can plant a standard
Where a standard never flew.”
“That sums up my life: I put those words in my high school yearbook and they still inspire me 55 years later,” Ensley says.