BLOWING PEOPLE’S MINDS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS TO DO”
UNDER ARMOUR MAKES I TS APPAREL WITH 250,000 OVERSEAS WORKERS. CAN IT BRING JOBS BACK HOME TO BALTIMORE? BY RACHEL MONROE
In March, Under Armour won a minor skirmish in the war for sportswear dominance when it became the first to sell a performance shoe with a 3D-printed midsole. The shoe, the UA Architech, sold out online in 19 minutes. Sure, there were only 96 pairs available, but, as Chief Executive Officer Kevin Plank says one recent afternoon, “Everyone was trying to do it. No one thought that we’d get there first.” Plank is sporting a pair of the $300 Architechs as he tours the Lighthouse, the new home of Under Armour’s innovation division in an industrial tract off the Middle Branch of Baltimore’s Patapsco River. (It opened on June 28.) Plank’s attitude seems to exist on a narrow spectrum between pumped and superpumped, but the shoes are particularly enthusiasm-inducing. “They’re like two clouds of awesomeness I’m walking on right now,” he says. “I stole that from my 9-yearold, actually. My kids have been watching a lot of My Little Pony, and it’s rubbing off on me.”
The shoes’ most notable feature is a lipstick-red midsole that resembles a whalebone corset. It’s something you squint at and wonder: How exactly did they make that? The short answer involves polymers and a partnership with DuPont. The long answer includes Plank’s plans to reinvent his company’s supply chain, transform the city of Baltimore, and maybe even outmaneuver Nike in the process.
It’s difficult to talk about athletics companies without resorting to sports metaphors. In Under Armour’s case, they’re particularly hard to resist, in part because sportiness is so essential to its corporate culture. Employees call one another “teammates”; 70 percent of them played high school sports. The current headquarters, in south Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood, includes a 35,000-square-foot gym and a basketball court that used to be open 24/7, until all the dribbling during work hours proved too distracting. The walls are covered with photos of Stephen Curry and Misty Copeland so large that their beads of sweat are several inches wide. Plank, a high-energy 43-year-old with gently graying hair, is fond of inspirational analogies involving fires and races and winning. His teammates speak of him in the reverent tones usually reserved for coaches.
The phrase “aggressive, young, fearless” is plastered all over the walls. It’s a quote from golfer Jordan Spieth describing himself and the brand, but it could just as easily apply to Plank, who propelled himself from walk-on to specialteams captain of the University of Maryland football program. During his senior year, in 1995, the mid-Atlantic was seized by a record-setting heat wave, and practicing in a sweatsoaked cotton T-shirt felt more oppressive than usual. The year after he graduated, Plank developed a moisture-wicking shirt made from synthetic fabric and began calling up former teammates. In Under Armour’s first year, when the company was still operating out of his grandmother’s basement in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, Plank put more than 100,000 miles on his Ford Explorer driving up and down the East Coast and trying to parlay those friendships with former teammates into orders. “I graduated from college and realized, I know 60 people playing in the NFL who have careers that are going to be somewhere between three and five years,” Plank says. “So the window is about this big. And I either take advantage of it now or lose it forever. I’m thinking, Is there a way for me to give them a gift that would also help me? And it’s that virtuous cycle that really got us going.” It worked better than he expected. A combination of innovative technology and Plank’s fervor for his own product contributed to Under Armour’s vertical rise, from $17,000 in sales that first year, to $400 million in 2006, to a projection of almost $5 billion in 2016.
An underdog ethic is still baked into company lore, even though last year Under Armour overtook Adidas to become the second-biggest sportswear brand in the U.S. In May, the company signed the largest sponsorship deal in the history of college sports, paying $280 million for a 15-year contract with UCLA. Under Armour has invested more than $700 million in fitness apps and activity-tracking technology, and it hired the designer Tim Coppens, a fashion-forward Belgian, to help snag a portion of the lucrative “athleisure” market.
These days, Under Armour looks like an underdog only when held up against Nike, a rival that Plank and other executives refuse to even name. “Five years ago, our largest competitor was 12 times our size,” Plank says. “Then it was 11 times, then 10 times. Today, they’re roughly six times our size. But the fact is, they’re still six times our size. So we have a lot of work to do.” He clearly relishes the idea of the world’s biggest sportswear company feeling Under Armour breathing down its neck. This spring’s NBA finals were the most recent proxy battle, between Nike’s LeBron James and Under Armour’s Curry, the MVP hero to underdogs everywhere. Curry defected from Nike to Under Armour in 2013. It happened after Nike officials mispronounced Stephen (as “Steh-fawn”—twice!) during a recycled PowerPoint presentation that accidentally included Kevin Durant’s name instead of his own, according to ESPN. James won the recent championship, but sales of Curry-branded shoes outpace those of every other current NBA player. Under Armour’s revenue in the
category is up 350 percent from last year—a potential “tipping point,” one Morgan Stanley analyst wrote, “signaling the end of Nike’s basketball dominance.”
Plank’s appreciation for the overlooked and underestimated—he’s the youngest of five brothers—is manifest in his affection for Baltimore. On the surface, there may not seem to be much linking the edgy, gritty city of John Waters and The Wire with Under Armour’s performance-bro aesthetic. But Plank sees an affinity between Baltimore’s hardworking, blue-collar past and his company’s relentless striving to be the best sportswear company out there. When pressed further, he just shrugs and quotes Drake: “‘All I care about is money and the city that I’m from.’ Maybe that’s human nature—not the money part, but the desire to see the place where you live succeed.”
Although Plank isn’t technically from Baltimore proper—he grew up in a middle-class family in Kensington, Md., a commuter suburb of D.C.—he has adopted the city as his own. Under Armour moved there in 1998, and his personal investments have one criterion: They have to benefit the company, Baltimore, or preferably both. He’s invested millions in supporting Maryland traditions such as horse racing and rye whiskey. In 2007 he purchased a 530-acre horse farm once owned by the Vanderbilt family. “Blowing people’s minds is one of my favorite things to do,” he says. “I bought the farm—literally—because horse racing is an organic part of the culture of Baltimore and because I wanted to bring people here and show them a Baltimore that blows their mind. People like Tom Brady and Colin Powell come up for the weekend and are like, ‘I had a different image of what Baltimore would be.’ And it’s only 17 miles north of the city.”
By 2013, Under Armour was growing at such a fast clip that it was clear the company needed to expand its footprint in Baltimore. There was never really any question of leaving the city or of relocating to the suburbs, Plank says. Instead, he set his sights on a seven-acre parcel adjacent to the current headquarters. But after protracted wrangling with the city, Under Armour was turned down. When he got the news, Plank was in Dubai drinking whiskey with his chief of staff, who saw a silver lining.
“That land you were looking at?” the chief of staff said. “It felt … tight.”
“I just looked up at the skyline of Dubai, and all I could think to myself was that 15 years ago, that skyline didn’t exist,” Plank says. “Until someone with a vision, Sheikh Mohammed, said, ‘I’m going to take this old fishing town and turn it into the economic capital of the Middle East.’ Out of desert and a fishing town. That’s vision. And I’m looking out at it and thinking, Well, what could we do?”
By then, Plank owned a five-acre parcel in an industrial part of Baltimore, where he planned to build a whiskey distillery. The land was in a former brownfield site known as Port Covington. That the area was largely uninhabited was part of its appeal, he says. “We wouldn’t be kicking out little old ladies with 30 cats.” Over the next few years, he spent more than $100 million of his own money buying up nearby real estate, ultimately acquiring 266 acres under the umbrella of his real estate investment arm, Sagamore Development.
Clockwise from left: Plank (center) at the Lighthouse; the UA Architech; Under Armour apparel under wraps