For Under Armour CEO and Kensington native Kevin Plank, it’s always been about the huddle.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank in front of the "inspiration board" at company headquarters in Baltimore.
Photo credit: Erick Gibson
In 1983, with his team trailing and time running out in Maplewood Football playoff game, 11-year-old Kevin Plank of Kensington entered the huddle determined to fire up his teammates. Running back Mark Mason of Potomac went on to score the winning touchdown, but Plank’s leadership skills and blocking on the final play earned him most valuable player honors. Mason recalls Plank telling him: “Come on Markey, let’s go, let’s score a touchdown. He was the reason that we won.”
Plank, now 36, is the founder and chief executive of Baltimore-based Under Armour, the highly successful sports apparel company he took public in 2005. Frustrated by the “soaking wet” cotton T-shirts he wore under his University of Maryland football uniform, the special teams captain created a fabric that wicked away sweat while providing muscle support.
The clothing has become known as “performance apparel,” and Under Armour, which employs 2,000 people worldwide, with 1,200 in Maryland alone, generated $725 million in revenue last year. The company also makes footwear and other athletic accessories.
Plank, who took a $1.5 million salary in 2007, made $12 million when he took his company public a little more than three years ago. He owns an estimated 12.5 million shares of company stock.
Plank says he built his company using the same principles he learned during his years on the football field. “When I look back at what made Under Armour so successful, it is my ability to put a team together,” Plank says in a conference room at Under Armour’s Tide Point Baltimore headquarters shortly after completing a whirlwind launch of the company’s new running shoe. His ability to motivate a team, Plank says, started when, in the fourth grade, he began playing in the Bethesda area’s Maplewood Football program.
Plank’s path to success took root in his childhood home in Kensington, where teamwork, independence, commitment and entrepreneurship were valued. The youngest of five boys (his oldest brother is 13 years his senior), Plank grew up in what was once a farmhouse on Frederick Avenue in Kensington.
His father, William, who died in 1993, was a real estate developer with projects in Virginia, Florida, South Carolina and Maryland, including Bethesda’s Al Marah subdivision off River Road. Plank’s mother, Jayne, was a real estate broker until a few years ago. She also served on the Kensington Town Council, was Kensington’s mayor for eight years and was a State Department official under President Ronald Reagan. She still manages real estate properties.
“I loved growing up in Kensington,” Plank says. He has fond memories of playing for hours in Kensington Cabin Park and at the nearby creek—both across the street from his house—and recalls riding bikes “in little cycle gangs” down Kensington Parkway and toward Howard Avenue and Antique Row to get Slurpees at 7-Eleven. “Summers were big games of capture the flag or kick the can,” says Plank, who describes the kids playing in the park as a “real cross section from Kensington, Wheaton and Silver Spring.” It was “not far from West Side Story,” he says with a laugh.
During the school year, “we would pretty much leave in the morning, and come home to get our things for [sports] practice, and then come home again for dinner,” says brother Stuart Plank, the second oldest son. Stuart says the Plank boys “made” their own summer camp in the park across the street. Kevin’s favorite place to eat was Continental Pizza off of Connecticut Avenue, where Stuart, a Kensington resident, says his brother still likes to get a cheese steak when he’s in town.
Jayne says her youngest son was “very happy, self sufficient, easygoing, reliable, but a bit of a daredevil. I got a call one day at work that Kevin tried to fly from the apple tree in our backyard,” Jayne says, recalling that Kevin had broken his wrist. “He was dressed in his Superman outfit.”
Plank recalls how his father had the boys work on housing development projects or shovel the family’s driveway. They usually got an Oh Henry! candy bar as pay. “Our parents taught us that there was no silver platter,” says Scott Plank, the middle son and the senior vice president of retail at Under Armour. “We had to work for the things we had.”
Plank says dinnertime was a bit of a “firing line,” as the five boys would “fight over food. I ate really slowly, and that was to my disadvantage.” Stuart, a Bethesda home builder who is nine years older than Kevin, laughs at thoughts of the first time his wife-to-be visited their house. She wasn’t sure whether the brothers were going to “play catch” or “get into a fistfight,” Stuart says.
All of the Plank boys walked across Connecticut Avenue to grade school at Holy Redeemer on Summit Avenue. Kevin Plank says his parents didn’t set up car pools; the boys either walked to friends’ homes or activities or got their own rides. Plank was industrious at an early age. Stuart says that during the summer after his freshman year of college, Kevin made his lunch every day for a dollar. Kevin recalls mowing the lawn “in the fourth or fifth grade because his brothers said it was [his] turn.”
When Jayne worked for the Reagan administration, she took the boys—sometimes just one; other times more—on business trips to “give them special time” with her. “Kevin always had a comfort with people,” Jayne recalls. “I told the boys, ‘there are no strangers, just friends that you never met.’ ”
Dave Crocker, whose mother, Jan, is still a kindergarten teacher and vice principal at Holy Redeemer, was a year younger than Plank in school. Crocker, who now lives in Olney and is a swim coach at the Montgomery Aquatic Center in Rockville, describes Plank as “always sort of a jokester” and “easygoing” in school. But when “he put his football helmet on,” says Crocker, who also played Maplewood Football, “then he would be the hardest hitter on the field.”
Mason, the former Maplewood Football player and now a resident of Atlanta, played with Plank at Maryland. Mason recalls being “intimidated” by Plank in fifth grade. “He always had a fiery demeanor,” Mason says, describing the drills required during daily football practices at Alta Vista Park in Bethesda. “We would run around the field and then have to run through the trees chanting ‘Hail Maplewood,’ ”Mason says. “Kevin ran and yelled the entire time. He was intense.”
‘Let’s go make some money’
Plank took that spirit to Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, where he was one of three captains on the freshman football team. Each of his brothers graduated from the school. “No one wanted to win more than Kevin Plank,” recalls classmate and co-captain Andy Kish, who met Plank on the first day of school freshman year. “It did not matter what we were doing...Kevin was always the most competitive one in the group.”
Kish, who now runs Under Armour manufacturing in Asia out of Hong Kong, describes how his friend would “call me up at 7 a.m. and say, ‘Let’s go make some money,’ and we would shovel snow all day. He would rope in a number of guys. He did this all through high school.”
“Kevin’s father taught him the value of a dollar,” Kish says. “To this day he walks around the office turning off the lights.”
When Plank was in high school, middle brother Scott returned from Guatemala—where he had traveled to learn Spanish—with a duffel bag full of colorful knitted bracelets he’d bought for $20. He suggested that he and his two youngest brothers try to sell the bracelets at a Grateful Dead concert. After earning more than seven times what his brothers did, Plank says he recognized that he was a terrific salesman. Chris Smith, who grew up in Chevy Chase and now lives in Los Angeles, played football with Plank at Georgetown Prep and says Plank“ could entertain a lot of people. He was very gregarious.”
“During sophomore year” at Georgetown Prep, Plank got a call telling him that he “was not being asked back,” Smith says. According to those close to Plank, his grades weren’t up to par. “He was not looking forward to explaining this to his family,” Smith says.
“I was always a good kid, but I ended up finding trouble from time to time, too,” Plank says. “I remember overhearing my mom and dad talking one time…it was just after I had been let go from Georgetown Prep. I was upstairs and hearing my parents talking, and my mom saying, ‘What are we going to do about Kevin?’ and my dad just saying, ‘You know Kevin, he will always be OK.’ ”
So for his junior year, Plank transferred to St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. “I always knew that it was a matter of me growing up and maturing,” Plank says. “Leaving Prep and going to St. John’s helped build who I am today…it made me a lot stronger.” he says. “Sometimes it is important to reinvent yourself… so you are not burdened by the person that you were before.” Smith, from Prep, says he admired his friend because of his attitude to “just move on.”
Move on he did. Plank says he went to St. John’s telling himself, “I am going to be a good student.” He achieved“ a B average” while he wrestled, played lacrosse and excelled on the football team. In his senior year, he was the MVP of the St. John’s football championship win over rival DeMatha High School and received honorable mention recognition on USA Today’s All-USA high school football team.
After graduation, Plank decided to play a year of football at Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Va., because he wanted to improve his chances of playing “big time college football.” The team featured 13 future National Football League players, including future Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George. These connections would serve him well when he launched Under Armour.
Bill McDermond, who played football with Plank then and is now senior director of international operations at Under Armour, recalls Plank’s focus and moxie, such as walking up to college recruiters and introducing himself. Although Plank was much smaller and not as talented as other teammates, McDermond says “he was not afraid to go after something.”
The following year, despite having received scholarship offers from other schools, Plank decided to attend Maryland as a walk-on player. After being “red shirted” his first year (not playing his first year so he could be eligible for four more years), Plank played fullback and linebacker, was special teams captain and didn’t miss a practice in five years. He earned a scholarship for his final two years.
Eric Ogbogu was a freshman at Maryland when Plank was a senior. He says Plank wasn’t the “biggest guy” or the “fastest guy,” but the one who “worked harder than anyone.” Ogbogu, who played in the NFL for seven seasons, remembers a spring practice during his freshman year when Plank, at almost 5 feet 11 inches and 228 pounds, gave the 6-foot-4-inch, 245-pound Ogbogu his “first and only concussion…in college football.” Ogbogu is now the Under Armour brand ambassador and “Big E” in company advertisements.
Craig Fitzgerald, Plank’s freshman and sophomore roommate and football teammate, marveled at his stamina and energy. He recalls how Plank could get away with four hours of sleep. “He would get the most out of Maryland, juggling football, homework, social life and work,” says Fitzgerald, now the director of strength and conditioning for athletic teams at Harvard University.
Scott Plank, who is seven years older than Kevin, noticed how good his brother was with people when he watched him bartend at Nantucket Landing, now The Barking Dog, in Bethesda during his college summers. “With everything going on at the bar,” Scott says, “Kevin was always able to keep the drinks flowing” and the people happy.
Plank first met Desiree Jacqueline “D.J.” Guerzon of Potomac while at St. John’s, when he went out with one of her schoolmates from the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda. He ran into D.J. again on his first day of college, and they started dating a few months later. “He knew what he wanted and how to make it happen,”D.J. recalls.
The two were married six years ago and have two children. In college, Plank avoided rules that restricted student athletes from taking jobs by launching businesses of his own, such as selling T-shirts. He even pulled D.J. into his business efforts. She remembers how Plank wanted to sell T-shirts at a Grateful Dead concert and “thought they could make more money on the shirts if they tie-dyed them.” She says her mom helped her tie-dye the shirts in the backyard of her family’s home.
Plank also developed Cupid’s Valentine, an annual business that sold roses for Valentine’s Day. Again, Plank involved his college friends, and D.J. was his “chief of staff,” according to Fitzgerald. Plank says he put away $17,000 from the rose business, which eventually became seed money for Under Armour.
‘I figured it out’
At St. John’s, Plank was always “cutting his football shirts in half ” because he was uncomfortable, recalls high school friend Brendan Quinn of Washington, D.C. Quinn, who is president of Ernest Maier Block, a masonry block manufacturer in Bladensburg, and a member of St. John’s board of trustees along with Plank, says Plank “was the sweatiest guy on the football field.” Plank says he “used to hate [the] cotton T-shirt” he wore under his uniform.
“It would get so wet,” he says. “I changed it as often as I could.” Plank says he was always interested in apparel and considered how he could make a shirt that would wick sweat away from the body.
Plank recalls sitting in his dorm room during his senior year at Maryland and drawing the first Under Armour shirt. “I thought, ‘I figured it out, I am going to make a T-shirt,’ ” Plank says. He bought fabric that he hoped could combine the snug fit of a “Hanes cotton T-shirt” and the lightness and fast-drying texture of synthetic, stretchy fabrics used in women’s lingerie. He found a tailor outside College Park and paid him “$480” to sew seven prototypes. Plank then had football teammates and athletes from other Maryland teams test them.
After graduating in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Plank says he got into his car and drove to New York City’s garment district. “I had 500 shirts made up, and I phoned every equipment manager in the [Atlantic Coast Conference] that would listen to me,” Plank says. He reached out to his former football teammates and had them spread the word about the shirts, pioneering what has become known as performance apparel.
Early on, Plank ran the company out of his grandmother’s run-down town house in Georgetown. Plank says that the “self-described ‘tough-old broad,’” who managed real estate until she died in 1996 at age 93, was one of his mentors.
As he had done with his high school businesses, Plank pulled together a team to help him, including D.J., who was studying nursing at Georgetown University. By the end of 1996, Plank says Under Armour had generated $17,000 in revenue purely by word of mouth. Plank says the key to his early success is that he “always created an image” that the company was much “bigger and larger” than it was.
The next year he had $100,000 in orders to fill and found a factory in Ohio to make the shirts. He had gone through the $17,000 from the rose business in college and run up $40,000 in debt across five credit cards. Many people, according to early partner Kip Fulks, advised Plank not to go forward. “The advice he got was ‘don’t do it,’ you cannot compete against the big players,” says Fulks, an Under Armour senior vice president. But Plank was undeterred and “fueled” in part, Fulks says, by companies like Nike ignoring his product at trade shows.
The company first made a profit in 1998, but a pivotal moment came in 1999 with the release of Oliver Stone’s football movie Any Given Sunday, in which actor Jamie Foxx wore an Under Armour jockstrap in a locker room scene. After hearing about the movie through a Fork Union teammate, Plank sent samples of his products to the costume designer and convinced Stone’s assistant to pay for the Under Armour goods.
With the Stone movie about to be released, Plank decided that Under Armour had to tell its “story.” The company had only $25,000 to spend, and Plank put it all on an ad in ESPN The Magazine. He calls the move a turning point. “We generated close to $750,000 in sales from the advertisement,” he says. Three years after starting the company, Plank put himself on the payroll.
Posted on the wall in most meeting rooms and offices at the headquarters are the “Under Armour Huddles,” a kind of combination, in company terms, of Robert’s Rules of Order and the Ten Commandments. The rules encourage workers to “be prepared to huddle,” “manage the clock,” “know your position,” “run the huddle,” “execute the play” and “respect your teammates.” To some, the meeting rules might Seem trite. But they are at the heart of what Has made Under Armour so successful.
Kish, Under Armour’s manufacturing manager in Asia, explains: “We do not have a front end and a back end, we have offense and defense. We do not have colleagues, we have teammates. We do not have meetings, we have huddles. Everything is related to sports.”
Under Armour “teammates” maintain that Plank is the same person today as the one they knew in childhood or at college. They say he is regularly in touch with many childhood and college friends and invites many, along with his family, to an annual Preakness party. D.J. says she and Kevin try to get to Montgomery County Each month to visit family and friends or to go to one of their favorite places, Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande Cafe or Houston’s Woodmont Grill, both in Bethesda.
Eric Ogbogu, the company’s brand spokesman, who has known Plank since college, attended the Under Armour All America High School Football Game in Orlando in early January with Plank. He says that his boss “is a humble and regular person.” Ogbogu says that after a “hot day in the sun” talking to high school football players, “KP came over and brought me a Power Ade drink.”
Deborah Yow, athletic director at the University of Maryland, explains his success this way: “Anytime you find a person who has character and competence and works in an area where they have passion, then you are going to see something very special.”
Asked if he pinches himself in light of his success, Plank demurs, “No. We do not know how it ends.”
After all, there is so much more to do, so many more teams to organize and so many more huddles to call.
Potomac writer Carin Dessauer, a former executive with CNN and CNN.com, is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for the Connected Society and teaches at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.