Ryan Mathews

Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting

Ryan Mathews, founder and ceo of Black Monk Consulting is a globally recognized futurist, speaker and storyteller. Ryan is also a best selling author, a successful international consultant and a sought after commentator on topics as diverse as innovation, technology, global consumer trends and retailing. He and his work have been profiled in a number of periodicals including Wired, which labeled him a philosopher of e-commerce and Red Herring, which said of him, “It’s Mr. Mathews’ job to ask the hard questions”. In April, 2003 Ryan was named as “the futurist to watch” in an article on the 25 most influential people in demographics over the last 25 years by American Demographics magazine.

His opinions on issues ranging from the future of Internet pornography to ethnic marketing have appeared on the pages of literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Business Week, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Advertising Age and American Demographics. A veteran journalist, Ryan has written cover stories for Fast Company and other leading magazines has been a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s Marketplace on topics related to innovation. He is widely regarded as an expert on consumers and their relationship to brands, products, services and the companies that offer them. Ryan has also done significant work in related areas including supply chain analysis, advertising and new product development.

Ryan is the co-author (with Fred Crawford) of The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try To Be The Best at Everything (Crown Business), which debuted on the Wall Street Journal’s list of Best Selling Business Books. Myth was named to the bestseller lists of Business Week, 1-800 CEOREAD and other business book tracking services. It was also a bestseller on, whose Business Editors selected it for their list of the twelve best business books released in 2001. Writing about Myth Federal Express chairman, president and ceo Frederick W. Smith called Ryan an “exceptional strategic thinker.” A.G. Lafley, president and ceo of The Procter & Gamble Company said the Consumer Relevancy model advanced in Myth was, “…the best tool I’ve seen for incorporating consumer wants and needs into your business.” Ryan is also the co-author (with Watts Wacker) of The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets (Crown Business), which received uniformly high reviews from the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, the Miami Herald and Time magazine. He was also a contributor to the best selling, Business: The Ultimate Resource (Perseus). Ryan is currently at work on his third book (again with Fred Crawford), tentatively titled, “Engagement: Making Sense of Life and Business” which addresses issues as diverse as a new model of branding and the search for the elusive global consumer.

A frequently requested keynote speaker Ryan has addressed a wide variety of subjects in his speech practice from the future of beauty to the future of house paint. His audiences have included labor groups such as the United Food & Commercial Workers Union; not for profit organizations like Planned Parenthood; associations from the Photographic Retailers Organization to the Grocery Manufacturers of America; academic institutions like Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University; high technology forums such as Information Week’s CIO Boot Camp and Accenture’s E-Business Symposium; consulting audiences including Cap-Gemini, Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche; to consumer goods manufacturers from Sherwin Williams to Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and numerous others. He has worked and spoken extensively in Europe for clients including Grey Advertising, Musgrave, Ltd, the British Post and Unilever. In addition to speaking and his other areas of expertise Ryan has done significant client work in organizational development as a facilitator and scenario planner.

Ryan received his BA from Hope College in Inner Asian history and philosophy and did his graduate work at the University of Detroit where he studied phenomenological ontology. He is a Kentucky Colonel and his reputation and experience as a chili authority won him a seat on the International Chili Society’s board of directors. He has also served on the Advisory Board of the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.

  • Posted on: 01/20/2022

    Will Meijer’s free grocery delivery gesture be rewarded by customers?

    Many things have changed since Fred Meijer turned the reins of the company over to the current generation - some for the better, others not so much. But the constant "red thread" running through Meijer's history is the idea that sometimes a company ought to do what's right, even if it costs them sales, margins, or profits. This notion of principled retailing isn't some trendy incarnation of compassionate capitalism. It is the bedrock gene of Meijer's corporate DNA, the pattern of ethical thinking deeply woven into the fabric of the company's history and brand identity. Forget "higher net promoter scores" - which I pay no attention to anyway, despite their popularity, since they are so easily manipulated. And forget temporary competitive advantage because these days all competitive advantages are temporary, at best. And damn the cost unless it's so high it bankrupts the company, which is highly unlikely. This is about a retail citizen helping its community out in a time of need. The whole decision making process should start and stop there. Years ago, Fred Meijer told me he spent every Thanksgiving Day away from his family visiting as many stores as he physically could. Why did he do that? "Because," he said, "I'm asking my employees to go to work and be away from their families, and it isn't right to ask someone who works for you to do something you wouldn't do yourself." Nobody who has ever experienced a Thanksgiving in Michigan will tell you their idea of big fun would be to drive hundreds of miles through problematic weather only to walk in through one store door, make your presence known, and then walk out another door, and then jump in your car and do it all over again until you run out of time. But Fred knew doing the right thing, the human thing, is always good business.
  • Posted on: 01/20/2022

    Should retailers stick to vaccine mandates and change face mask rules?

    Retailers have to answer to four audiences; their employees, their customers, the vendors and delivery folks that regularly visit the store, and the communities in which they operate, so, yes, they should require vaccination, effective masks, and appropriate testing. Now, that also means they ought to underwrite the costs of masks and tests. Those should be viewed as ongoing costs of doing business until the pandemic has passed. The Supreme Court ruled on the power of OSHA to mandate certain workplace requirements. That's a different question from what constitutes good public health policy and practice, and nobody should confuse the former and the latter.
  • Posted on: 01/14/2022

    SCOTUS strikes down OSHA’s COVID vaccine/testing mandate

    Ben -- so this is what it takes to rattle the bear! I agree with you -- up to a point. As a general Constitutional principle (assuming one is a conservative strict constructionist at least) OSHA doesn't - and shouldn't - " ... have the powers to regulate everyday life." But a pandemic isn't "everyday life" and the fact is, without mandates, workplace safety is an issue, as we have all seen. "Life" is the first of the unalienable enumerated rights in the Declaration of Independence. While not legally binding, it is generally acknowledged as the foundational principle of American democracy. And, in a pandemic, governmental mandates - by some agency/authority/etc. are the best way to guarantee "life" to the broadest percent of the population. OSHA has clear authority to mandate that, say, employees are not exposed to toxins, carcinogens, etc. So how, in this very limited sense, is exposure to a virus any different? Hope retirement is treating you well my friend, and vice versa. Some of us still have to labor in the fields.
  • Posted on: 01/14/2022

    SCOTUS strikes down OSHA’s COVID vaccine/testing mandate

    Al, as my father used to say. You can have the green light at an intersection and walk across the street, but if a car is barreling down at you at 100 miles per hour and runs the red light - you will have been in the right, okay, the (very) dead right. I'm with you. Five years ago if you told me that hundreds of thousands of Americans would die because of something that was essentially avoidable I might have told you to stop ingesting whatever it was you were eating, drinking, smoking, or popping. Today you could tell me this will never end and I might believe you. What's next? Deciding smallpox, polio, measles, etc. aren't really diseases, or that we have a right to infect everyone around us just because we feel like it? It's a sad commentary, written in an ocean of needlessly shed blood.
  • Posted on: 01/14/2022

    SCOTUS strikes down OSHA’s COVID vaccine/testing mandate

    Neil, with all due respect, we could have been over this whole pandemic a year ago if we - or a fairly consistent 40 percent of us at least - hadn't insisted in confusing personal freedom and public health. Yes, Americans have the right to make individual choices, but not when those choices cost other people their lives and/or livelihoods. Here's a simple example. I have a Constitutional right to climb down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and yell, "Fire! Fire! Run!" all I want, but I don't have the right to do the very same thing in a crowded theater. Or I have "the right" to sit in my living room and chug a quart of over-proof vodka, but I don't have the right to then get up and drive. There is - agree or disagree with it - a firm overarching principle in American law that uses public safety/health as a pretty clear metric for what behavior is allowed and what behavior isn't. So, mandating vaccinations in a pandemic isn't any more an, " ... egregious interference in the personal decisions of individuals and in the policies of companies," than not mandating that young kids have "their shots" before they enter kindergarten, or making bartenders have a current city/state certified health card and tetanus shot as I had to when I was in college and grad school. The former was to protect the public from things like TB and the latter was to protect me from cutting myself and dropping dead two weeks later. Did I like the shots? Anyone who has ever had a tetanus shot knows the answer to that. Did I do it? I had to. Was it all in the interest of public health? You bet. Getting a vaccine in a pandemic is hardly the same as getting mugged on your way to work. OSHA's mission isn't the prevention of street crime, it's to ensure workplace safety. Are some of the rules stupid? No doubt, but that doesn't mean we should walk away from the idea that one of the legitimate jobs of a government is to do all it can to protect the physical health and safety of its people. That's why we have speed limits, even though nobody likes to obey them.
  • Posted on: 01/14/2022

    SCOTUS strikes down OSHA’s COVID vaccine/testing mandate

    If the President's math is correct, two-thirds of Fortune 100 companies are against mandates, so presumably the business community feels they are counterproductive. But, especially in the case of retail companies, this may be an exercise in Fool's Economics. If I'm highly dependent on a large labor pool having large portions of that pool down for weeks at a time really isn't financially sound in the long run. Also, if my store is linked as a super-spreader site, it's hard to understand how that helps me build traffic. Retailers make money when they have healthy employees serving healthy customers. If a significant percentage of one or both of those groups is sick on and off for months at a time it can't be good for business. As to the second question - with the notable exceptions of established religious beliefs and/or some underlying medical condition that makes it dangerous to be vaccinated, I approve of companies that have a "get vaccinated or else" policy. My oldest cousin developed polio years before I was born and lived over 30 years in an iron lung. Today most American kids have never known a polio victim. Vaccines work, but only if enough people take them.
  • Posted on: 01/14/2022

    Can the metaverse solve retail’s returns challenges?

    In a word -- no. AR/VR/MR tools can (today) only address the physical issues associated with "fit" and those only to greater or lesser degrees depending on the system. But it seems to me that the real problem area is emotional/psychological "fit." Ask anyone who has ever worked in a shoe store. People will often tell an associate their "size," force their feet into shoes that are clearly too small, and buy them. Now, these shoes can't be comfortable any more than ill-fitting bras, men's suits that are "slim cut" on bodies that aren't, medium or large sweaters on XL or XXL torsos, etc., but they sell because they "psychologically" fit the customer. I have been a big AR/VR/MR advocate for decades, but even I don't think technology can bridge the physical versus psychological size gap.
  • Posted on: 01/14/2022

    Will NFTs, Kanye West and high-fashion collabs help Gap get its groove back?

    The problem with "cool" in a digital world is that it has a very, very, very short shelf life. As every one-hit wonder band knows, pop culture is fickle. It's (relatively) easy to be "cool" once, but it is hard to be consistently cool. Partnering with this week's hot artist is great, but what are you going to do the other 51 weeks of the year? As my fellow panelists have noted, walking into a Gap store is almost a sure cure for insomnia. If the decor package doesn't put you to sleep, the "service" and inventory will. I think there is a world of difference between being popular/fashion acceptable and being cool, and I'm just not sure Gap ever was a cool brand.
  • Posted on: 01/13/2022

    Has ‘just-in-case’ replaced ‘just-in-time’ inventory management?

    Flexibility is the best antidote for uncertainty. "Just-in-time" isn't the only supply chain issue. There's diversification of sourcing, geopolitics, changing consumer behavior, etc. Those were all issues pre-COVID-19. I have argued for 20 years that the foundational mistake in supply chains is applying Industrial Age metrics and measures to any activity in a digital world. Our approach to supply chain thinking is regressive and - in some areas - obsolete. Look ahead to 2050. Where will the largest, most attractive retail markets be? Sub-Saharan Africa. Are today's supply chain thinkers figuring that into the equation? The question is well put. COVID-19 "exposed" existing problems more than it created any new ones. If the system was better designed it would have taken a body blow during the pandemic, but it wouldn't be out for the count.
  • Posted on: 01/13/2022

    Big Lots has big expansion plans

    I like the Big Lots story and I think they are positioned for controlled growth but adding 500 stores on this timetable seems more than bullish, it sounds like the worst kind of retail hubris. Add stores? Sure, as needed and as strategic. Commit to 500 stores in this era of "no normal"? Doesn't sound like a good plan. Strategic expansion is almost always good. Expansion for expansion's sake is almost always a mistake.
  • Posted on: 01/13/2022

    Can Penney’s new leadership (finally) transform the business?

    Clearly J.C. Penney is investing in some high powered talent, and that is always good. But they are being asked to do the near impossible - transform a moribund brand (J.C. Penney) in a declining category (traditional middle class consumer department stores). Making modifications to the existing model just won't be enough. This is going to take a literal transformation because: a.) the stores are tired, to put it charitably; b.) malls are in trouble, again, to put it charitably; c.) the traditional target consumer is aging out/dying out; d.) previous managements have failed to transform the company enough to build up a viable, sustainable, new customer base; e.) the competition is simply very, very good. This is an impressive lineup of top retail executives and I wish them well, but color me skeptical.
  • Posted on: 01/12/2022

    What tech must restaurants put on their menu of services?

    First of all not a surprise that Paytronix Systems thinks that these technologies are what consumers want, given that they sell them. Pay-at-table is great -- as long as you have a credit card, and advanced ordering may be okay most of the time, but there is more to a dining experience and service than efficiency. So for quick service operations it probably makes all the sense in the world; for other foodservice operators, some technologies may make more sense than others -- and some make no sense at all. It all comes down to the customer, the operator, and the brand promise.
  • Posted on: 01/12/2022

    More Americans are making Target runs

    Occam's Razor teaches us that the simplest explanation is the best explanation so, applying that maxim, I'd say consumers are making more Target runs because they like shopping at Target. The reasons behind that are pretty obvious - selection, price, service, store "shopability," etc. Target is just doing lots of things right, or at least better than their competition. And the best way for Target to improve is to continue doing what it does best - knowing their customer and giving them what they want.
  • Posted on: 01/12/2022

    Are brand and product messages in conflict?

    My advice to marketers is to quit talking to other marketers and start listening to a broader cross-section of consumers. Let's look at some of these results: 77 percent "believe" in the power of authentic, brand-first storytelling; 72 percent "feel" their customers make more purchasing decisions based on the strength of the overall brand than they did three years ago; and 88 percent "believe" their C-suite understands the value of an authentic brand. In other words we now know that people drink their own Kool-Aid. If they didn't believe these things it would be hard to explain the last five years of marketing "strategy." When is the last time you have seen a real, flesh-and-blood consumer ask where the Procter & Gamble aisle was? As Neil Saunders so brilliantly points out, what is the real meaning of mayonnaise? And how about all those income constrained shoppers out there that provided the foundation of the Walmart and Aldi empires? Are they looking for authentication, aspiration, and affirmation or just affordable food? As my Irish grandmother used to say, "Carry yourself on." In some cases, say REI or YETI, brand may trump individual products. But, in more cases than not - especially in a supermarket - consumers are buying specific products and may not even know who makes them or how they feel about baby harp seals. If marketing is lost in that great, blinding, infinite existential desert of the soul then maybe it ought to go back to its "authentic" roots when its purpose was to sell more product, period -- full stop.
  • Posted on: 01/11/2022

    What is America eating in 2022?

    These are all great if you follow trends. If you follow real American consumers my money is on ground beef, eggs, milk, potatoes, bananas, and fast food. As to which pandemic trends will survive, we should probably wait until the pandemic is over -- but I think, in general, brand loyalty will never be the same.

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