Under Armour's Kevin Plank talks shop

Originally Published: January 28, 2010
By Jemele Hill | Page 2

LUTHERVILLE, Md. -- We rode in the Maryland darkness, and just when we were about eight minutes away, Kevin Plank called.

It was the third time.

"Jemelllllllle, what's taking you so long?" Plank chided. "C'monnnnnnnn, we're waiting for you!"

I'd read that Under Armour's founder and CEO was 37 years old, which meant he and I could comfortably reminisce about Tecmo Bowl, Garbage Pail Kids and seeing "Star Wars" for the first time. But it wasn't even 7 a.m., and Plank sounded as though he'd been hooked to an IV full of sugar all night.

Needless to say, it made me wary. Diane Pelkey, Under Armour's senior director of communication and my chauffeur for the morning, only smiled. She had warned me Plank was not your typical company leader.

Several weeks ago, I received an invitation to work out with Plank, Under Armour chief operating officer Wayne Marino, director of women's sports marketing Tori Hanna and two of Plank's personal trainers, one of whom is a former Navy SEAL.

Aside from the obvious physical benefits, this was my opportunity to figure out how Plank had come to command a company generating nearly $1 billion in sales after starting out with just $16,000 in start-up cash and $40,000 in credit.

How did Under Armour become the signature performance brand for a generation of athletes? Why were ordinary people going around clapping their hands, stomping their feet and yelling, "We must protect this house!"?

During and after the workout, Plank shared his story. If you haven't heard it, prepare to be inspired.

A dream spun from women's lingerie

He hated his T-shirt -- that's how it began.

As a special teams football player at the University of Maryland, Plank despised how soaked the T-shirt underneath his pads would become. It felt heavy and confining.

"I wondered why no one ever made a better alternative," Plank said. "Before Under Armour, the only choices you had were to wear a short-sleeved cotton T-shirt in the summer or a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt in the winter. Why not make a better piece of equipment for underneath the shoulder pads?"

During his senior year in 1995, Plank went to a local fabric store and found the stretchy material that would eventually stoke an empire. He then went to a tailor and asked if he could get as many T-shirts as possible made from that same material.

Seven prototypes later, the Under Armour dry fit was born.

Instead of trying to get his product in stores, Plank went right to his friends, athletes he'd known his whole life, from high school to college -- some of whom had become "big time." He asked them to wear his product, and if they liked it, he told them to give it to their teammates.

"You're convincing these big, tough football players to wear what was essentially women's lingerie," said Plank, who started Under Armour when he was 22. "There was a little bit of a Jedi mind trick that needed to take place. The product really spoke for itself once guys felt it and touched it. That's probably where the importance of the name -- this big, tough name, Under Armour -- was more important than anything."

One of the guys who got the early rendition of the Under Armour product was Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, who attended Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia with Plank.

George recalled wearing Under Armour for the first time during his second NFL season, with the Tennessee Oilers (now the Titans). It was a game against the Oakland Raiders, and George recollects that, although it felt like 120 degrees outside, he was as cool as he would be on a 70-degree day.

Other than Oilers tight end Frank Wycheck, who attended Maryland with Plank, George's teammates were not impressed with his new clothing.

"They would say, 'What the hell are you wearing leotards for?'" George remembered, chuckling. "They didn't quite get it."

Admittedly, neither did George. As far as he was concerned, he was just doing a favor for a friend. In fact, George was one of several athletes Plank approached for an investment, and George was among many who declined. In a year, Plank had gone through both his start-up cash and his available credit.

"This ain't gonna last three or four years," is what George told Wycheck. "I'm not putting my money into any underwear or undershirts or Under Armour, or whatever it's supposed to be."

After Plank and I completed our "drop downs" -- during which you do as many repetitions as possible starting at the highest weight you can curl and working your way down -- I asked Plank how much an initial $10,000 investment would be worth today.

Plank's answer: "$140 million."

I was breathless from the curls, but when I relayed word to George, he started gasping.

"That hurts," George said, laughing.

Hustlers never sleep

Plank's mother was the mayor of Kensington, Md., for 13 years. But Kevin, the youngest of five brothers, never grew up feeling entitled. It was just the opposite.

Plank showed the same initiative in creating Under Armour that he'd shown his whole life. He was always someone looking to branch out on his own, looking to make his own mark on the world.

As a kid, he started his own lawn-mowing service. In college, he sold roses, of all things, and even went around to Grateful Dead concerts hawking T-shirts.

No one could tell Plank something was impossible. He wanted desperately to play Division I college football, so he went to Fork Union to prepare himself, even though it was a school that traditionally accepted athletes who, academically, weren't quite ready for college. Plank arrived at Maryland as a walk-on, and he earned a scholarship after his freshman year.

But unlike a lot of college football players, Plank never considered football his only option. He always wanted to be a businessman. Even though Nike was a giant in the sports apparel industry, Plank never thought he couldn't make it.

"Whenever people say, 'Do you ever pinch yourself because of how far Under Armour has come?' I always say, 'I never had a perfect vision of what things would look like,'" Plank said. "But more importantly, I never woke up and said, 'Let me give you five reasons why it's not going to happen.' I was always woke up and said, 'Why can't it be us?' I never believed that it wasn't possible for us to be the next great brand.'"

Plank barely kept the company afloat until the winter of 1999, when Under Armour's luck began to change. Oliver Stone wanted to use the company's products in his movie "Any Given Sunday." At the time, Plank had about 15 employees.

Plank got the feeling the movie was going to be huge and that Under Armour's fortunes were going to change. Against the advice of many people, Plank took out a $25,000 ad in ESPN The Magazine to help capitalize on the movie. His employees thought he was crazy, but his instincts paid off.

"We went from $17,000 in revenue in 1996 to $110,000 in 1997 to $400,000 to $1.3 million to $5 million to $20 million, $50 million, 115, 205, 285, 405, 606, 725 and this last quarter $837 million," Plank said. "It's one of those only-in-America stories that went from one employee to more than 2,700 today."

We must protect this house

In the private gym in his home, which was converted from two large barns, there is a wall with a series of wooden holes that hang above a sizable, metal Under Armour sign.

The holes stretch as far as Yao Ming's wingspan and are accompanied by two wooden pegs. The goal is to use upper-body strength to stick each peg in the wooden holes and make your way across the entire UA sign.

It's not something a CEO or a COO should do -- and certainly not this reporter. But Plank and Marino have a special relationship. Their secretaries don't set up meetings. Whatever business needs to be discussed is handled every Saturday, when Marino and Plank engage in a 6 a.m. workout.

"We tease each other about the budgets," Marino said. "He'd come in and say, 'I need to spend money on this.' I'd say, 'No.' And then he'd say 'I'll arm wrestle you for it.' And the competition would just start with, 'You want money, and it's my job to keep the money.'"

This day is no different. Marino latches onto the wooden pegs and easily navigates each wooden hole. Not wanting to be outdone, Plank not only makes his way down the entire length of the UA sign, but tries to do it in reverse. He makes it halfway back before releasing and falling to the mat underneath.

I look worriedly at Hanna, the director of women's sports marketing.

"I don't have to do that, do I?" I asked.

Hanna assured me that I didn't, even though I felt somewhat like a punk because I didn't even try. Hanna, a former Maryland lacrosse player, has a history of shoulder problems, and that's the only reason she isn't embarrassing me.

But even that difficult exercise and competition between bosses ties into the overall company philosophy. Plank says he believes in playing offense, in attacking, even in the current economy. In his mind, Nike may have claimed those who grew up in the 1980s, but he's trying to put the younger generation on lockdown. Under Armour outfits more than 125 high school programs with gear.

"Here, it's a get-it-done attitude," Hanna explained. "Essentially, if you need to get something done, any obstacles that are in the way, you find a way to get it done. It's just expected you're going to figure it out somehow. And you get supported."

That's why Plank's employees -- the majority of whom are around 30 years old -- are called "teammates," and to further imprint sports philosophy on his company, Plank hired the two trainers who supervised our workout, Nate and Damien Costa, to train all Under Armour employees.

Strangely, Plank's accomplishments never seem to dawn on him, even though he's clearly built an empire. Under Armour outfits more than 200 athletes, from San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis to downhill skier Lindsay Vonn. Five college programs deal with Under Armour exclusively (Maryland, Boston College, Texas Tech, South Florida and Auburn) and 50 other schools use their products.

"Nike's the 800-pound gorilla, but Kevin's clearly become a tiger," George said.

If you talk to Plank, he'll have you convinced he's a kitten -- albeit one with very sharp claws.

"We were always smart enough to be naïve enough to not know what we couldn't accomplish," Plank said.

Jemele Hill can be reached at

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