From rags to microfiber: inside the rapid rise of Under Armour
Under Armour is a $700 million operation, employing more than 2,000 people
The company's founder, Kevin Plank, started with a small T-shirt business
UA owns 74 percent of the market share in the performance apparel category
The stretch of I-95 that loops around Baltimore City reveals an unremarkable panorama of brick buildings, industrial cranes and shipyards. Then, as you drive along, you pass by an enormous billboard advertising a modern-looking running shoe, put out by Under Armour, the company whose sleek workout gear has redefined the modern sports apparel market. Why such a prominent shoe ad in that spot? Because UA's shoe lines, and all its other products, are being designed and fabricated just off a nearby exit.
Under Armour's headquarters, set on a sprawling 13-acre waterfront compound known as Tide Point in the neighborhood of Locust Point, was home to a Proctor & Gamble soap factory for more than 80 years. The compound's industrial brick exterior still retains the gritty appeal of a turn-of-the-century manufacturing district. It was a romantic image of blue-collar America that first enticed Under Armour's founder Kevin Plank to move his small T-shirt business from the basement of his grandmother's suburban D.C. dwelling in Georgetown to the crab capital of the world.
"There's such a heritage of toughness and hard work in this town," says Plank. "Baltimore has been a terrific home for us."
Now a $700 million operation, employing more than 2,000 people worldwide with offices in Denver, Toronto, Japan, China and Amsterdam, Under Armour is the story of one man's fight against the evils of cotton, and how his success turned the sports performance apparel market into one of the most competitive new territory of our time, spawning a host of imitators, all trying desperately to sop up the sweat.
In the beginning...
Plank is that enterprising friend we all had growing up, the kind of person who as a mere 23-year-old could believe he had identified an untouched market and was so convinced that it needed to be tapped that he emptied his wallet into developing prototype products, handing out business cards to whoever had fingers to grab them, engendering incredulous grins from business heads twice his age, all the while hoping someone in the universe would hear his bellowing cry: What the world needs now is moisture wicking technology!
"I was always the guy who was good at putting a group of people together to believe in one common vision or idea," says Plank. "If school would get canceled for snow, I was the kid who would grab my shovel, go out, and shovel snow. I've always had a pretty big motor."
Plank was raised in an industrious middle-class family His father worked as a land developer. His mother held the office of mayor in Kensington, Md., for 13 years. Later she moved to the State Department and worked under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
The youngest of five brothers, Plank needed physical skills to survive when his parents weren't home. "My brothers used to give me wedgies and stick me in a closet. That was their idea of babysitting," says Plank. "The idea of being athletic -- you really didn't have any choices if you wanted to get off the coat hanger they'd stick you on. And waiting for your underwear to rip was never fun."
When it came to sports, football was a passion. Plank attended St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C., where he played on the varsity squad in the competitive Washington Metropolitan Athletic Conference (WMAC). But he wanted more than the fleeting glory of a high school career.
"I wanted to play big-time college football," he says. "After I finished at St. John's I wasn't getting recruited from programs and I was talking to Division III schools, so I decided to go to a prep school. I was young when I graduated. I had just turned 17. I probably could have used another year, so my parents sent me to Fork Union Military Academy."
The academy was known for churning out all-star talent and graduating NFL hopefuls to top college football programs. It was here that Plank made the contacts that, a few years later, would form the foundation of his customer base.
"In that one high school class I think we had 23 guys sign on for Division I-A," Plank says. "Thirteen guys ended up being drafted to play in the NFL. We had one Heisman Trophy winner, Eddie George, in our class." Plank ended up being a walk-on at the University of Maryland in College Park.
It was at Maryland that Plank first became interested in athletic apparel. He was special teams captain, and playing at a level previously unmatched. In a story central to the Under Armour lore, Plank grew tired of the buckets of sweat that accumulated in the cottons he wore to practice and on the field.
"I was short and slow -- I was looking for every second I could spare," he says. "Even if it was raining outside, [the sweat-soaked cottons] gave me that slowed-down lethargic feeling."
It was the early '90s. Cottons still dominated the apparel market. The sporting goods world didn't yet know it, but Plank was steadily working out a solution that would deliver them from the dark ages of moisture-soaked workout gear. Plank become one of those insomniacs, staring at his bedroom ceiling, kept up at night by the big question -- in his case, how he could come up with a more practical fabric.
While his former teammates continued to suit up for spring ball, Plank now occupied his time running up the street from College Park into neighboring Beltsville, Md., to try out fabrics at a local tailor shop. There he would browse synthetic materials, eventually finding a few favorites, hoping to test his hypothesis. Spending $500, Plank ran through seven prototypes before deciding on the one he wanted to use. He would ask his former teammates to try on his prototypes, They greeted his invitation with some hesitation. Plank told them it was for a job he had, and he wanted their input.
"It was all about making yourself bigger than you were," Plank says. "My first goal was getting athletes to believe in the fact that they needed an alternative to a basic cotton T-shirt. The way you do that is with a great product, but you also do it with influencers."
Those influencers included good friend Jim Druckenmiller, then a 49ers backup quarterback and, according to Plank, a town crier in his locker room for the fledging Under Armour brand. As Plank's friends moved on to play professionally, he would send them T-shirts, requesting that they pass them out to other players in their locker rooms.
"I called Frank Wycheck, basically because he'd take my call," Plank says. "It was a lot easier to get a hold of Frank than it was Jerry Rice back then. I put packages together and sent them to the 30 guys I knew."
One of the first big media plugs Plank recalls was a front-page photo in USA Today. Jeff George, then playing for the Raiders, was featured wearing his team's uniform with an Under Armour mock turtleneck. The added excitement for Plank was that George was not one of the players he had even sent gear to.
"I remember thinking it's going to be a big day," says Plank. "The phone rang three times. One was from my mother telling me I still had to get this stuff out of my room at home. It taught me that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You have to get up and put your work boots on every single day."
To infiltrate locker rooms on the college level, Plank had to adopt a different business approach. To be successful, he would have to corner entire teams. His first major sale came when an equipment manager from Georgia Tech acquainted with the T-shirts contacted Plank. Asked how many he needed, the manager responded "350." Plank could only afford to send him 60 at the time, simply because that's all he had. At this moment he saw that his vision was on its way to becoming a cash cow.
The deal with Georgia Tech opened the door to a contract with N.C. State. Word began to spread, fashioned by positive reviews passing over the lips of players. After a Florida State game an equipment manager for the Atlanta Falcons, a Florida State alumnus, visited the equipment room where he saw players wearing the Under Armour shirts. Plank recalls the conversation.