Host: In this episode of Boss Files, we interview Under Armour founder, Kevin Plank. To really understand Under Armour, you have to hear the story of how it all began. So I sat down with former CEO, Kevin Plank to talk about how he bootstrapped big-time to build this company. The Under Armour CEO is betting billions on the city of Baltimore. We discussed why he’s making that bet and what he thinks it might mean for American jobs and innovation. We sat down in June, in Baltimore.
Kevin Plank: Welcome!
Host: It’s good to be here! We spoke a year ago and I got excited about the idea of talking to you about this city, because a lot of what I care about and what I report on is sort of the forgotten opportunity gap for a lot of people. I think in many ways, Baltimore is emblematic of that. And it’s all about jobs, which you talked about in your remarks. What is this and how does this play into that? What is the lighthouse?
Kevin Plank: America is a much bigger country than Los Angeles and New York. And so we sometimes forget about all these other amazing cities and the stories that are happening inside of them. So Baltimore, particularly in the last 12 months with what happened with the tragedy around Freddie Gray and other issues—the country took an opportunity to sort of brand the City of Baltimore in one way.
Host: In what way was that? How do you think the world sees Baltimore?
Kevin Plank: I think that great cities are about editing. Typically, in every city there are great things, but there’s also some not so great things. And again, what’s come through recently in Ferguson, what’s come through in Baltimore, is that you see this strife that’s happening on both sides. We haven’t solved the problem that we have. And the one issue that comes up every day is that it all comes back to jobs at some level. You know, when you compare the likes of Detroit and you compare the likes of a Baltimore or Cincinnati or Charlotte or any place, there are typically two cities inside of every major urban area in America. And each one is living in and battling with this idea of being a part of two cities. And so we’re very eager to talk about editing out some of the amazing things that we have going on. And I think articulating all that from something as acute as city garbage is a really interesting opportunity for us. And we’re proud to do that.
Host: You’ve called this a tale of two Baltimores?
Kevin Plank: Yeah.
Host: What Baltimore do you see?
Kevin Plank: I know that when I was watching last year and I’m watching Anderson Cooper on CNN, he’s talking about “Baltimore’s Burning.” That is the headline that’s crossed the screen. And I’m sitting there in my waterfront inner Harbor office and I’m looking out and saying, “I don’t see any of this.” And you’re wondering, what’s the role that any company has in a city? And the number one job we have to do, and I want to be really clear, is to stay in business. You know, we’re going to hire over 800 people just to corporate this year. And you think about the fact that the best thing we do is keep growing, keep driving and keep our company running in the right direction. So, I’ll tell you, I don’t take a political tone. I understand the importance of what we do, which is hiring people, building out and hopefully doing things like bringing manufacturing, bringing jobs back to America and truly being able to empower people with that ability to feel good about the products that they buy and who made them.
Host: You mention what a company means to a city or a company’s role in a city. Do you think that Under Armour has an obligation to the city? Do you feel that?
Kevin Plank: I don’t believe that any city needs a company, but I certainly believe that companies can help cities., I’m from Maryland. I’m from here. We ran out of room and we found ourselves trying to go through things like politics and asking people for help, before we realized we had the resources and the reach to do it ourselves.
There wasn’t a negotiation that we took with the state of the city or anybody else. We bought real estate. We said, this is where our new corporate headquarters is going to be. You know what? It’s going to be like the greatest example of when you think about Under Armour. It’s going to be the articulation of scientists in lab coats walking around, redeveloping the next grade fiber or fabric or hyper material that’s going to be able to keep you cool when it’s warm or warm when it’s cool. For athletes, it’ll be all the things that you think it could be. And we can build all that right here in Baltimore, but it has to start with one strike of innovation. And that innovation is the brand Under Armour.
Host: You’ve talked about Port Covington, which is an entire development. What this is going to be not only Under Armour headquarters but a whole lot more as a front porch, if you will, to Baltimore. What does the project mean for the city of Baltimore? What’s your vision?
Kevin Plank: Well, I think the energy was recognizing the growth of Under Armour. The key there is that nearly 260 acres of downtown waterfront property that, frankly, what made it as important for us to make it that the location was Route 95; 225,000 cars a day, driving through the city of Baltimore. And today, frankly, there’s not a lot that distinguishes the cities on the Northeast corridor, whether it’s Baltimore or Wilmington or Philly or New York. So we started asking, what are the things that can make a difference?
Host: You want those cars to pull off here in Baltimore?
Kevin Plank: I want to drive through and say, wow, there’s something great happening in this city. You know what I mean? If you’re gonna invest somewhere in the world, you’ll look and say, you know what? If I had to invest somewhere in the world and I’m coming from outer space, I’d probably pick America. If I’m gonna pick America, the Northeast corridor is a pretty good spot. If you’re watching the growth of government and you’re saying, what differentiates my friends in Philly from New York or Wilmington or someplace else like Baltimore?
We’re 36 miles from DC, we’re two hours and 12 minutes from the center of New York City; it could be an amazing city that’s built on this harbor. And when people drive through the city, I want them to look off to their left or off to the right, depending on which way they’re heading, and I want them to say, look at what’s happening there. At any given time today, we’re employing somewhere between 250,000 to 300,000 people making Under Armour products someplace around the world, depending on the surges that we have in inventory, et cetera, and demand.
That has us saying that in the next three or four years, we’re going to effectively double the size of our company and we’re going to create another 200,000-300,000 new additional jobs. How many of those jobs are expected to come back to America? And the answer today is relatively zero. Look, when I started the company in 1996, it was three years in. I was in Bellaire, Ohio, right at the Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania border with a guy named Sal Fasciani(?) who was the plant manager. And I remember him telling me, I’m sorry kid, but Speedo USA just pulled out and sent all the production to Mexico and your company and your business isn’t big enough – I think we were on our way to 1 million three or $5 million at the time. You don’t have enough capacity to actually keep our doors open.
So I watched 186 sewing operators, it was average age, 56-year-old, mostly women and they were being told by the union that they were going to be retrained and do something else. And this wasn’t a union issue or anything else, this was just a shift that the manufacturing base is not as important, and I’ll never forget the looks in their faces. I remember from that I ended up hiring the line supervisor that was working on Under Armour and I hired her boyfriend and then I hired two more sewing operators, and we set up shop in a little house in Moundsville(?) West Virginia and we started my first manufacturing line.
I’ve had this idea that we’re gonna stand on the soapbox and we’re going to make products in America. And the fact of the matter is that it was an uphill battle then, and we’ve fallen into it just like everybody else. I look and say, there should be an effort for us to bring back a manufacturing base in this country. And I think if we’re going to have that type of growth, we should have things that can help us actually achieve that goal.
Host: When you look at a label on an Under Armour shirt or shoes right now, you’re right, it doesn’t say, ‘Made in America’. Your goal with Project Glory and Local for Local sounds to me like you’re really trying to change that. But are we really talking about a day when a majority of the Under Armour products say ‘Made in America’? Is that economically possible?
Kevin Plank: All these things come back to the plight that we see in our inner cities, it comes back to jobs. And I think it’s a real crime that we don’t have enough of it and there is no plan right now. And we’re saying that this isn’t about handouts and this isn’t about just helping our brother. We should be helping our brother, but we should be helping by empowering them with the two most powerful words in the world, which to me are self-made. You know, it’s not a handout. And I think the opportunity that we have is to truly think, how can we bring manufacturing back and the way we do that?
So I think a great example for this is you look in the technology industry, and so smart people work in technology. The smartest people in the world, they’re going to work for Goldman Sachs and they’re going to work for Google and they were going to work for Apple. And that’s why basically, the innovation that we find is something as simple as a cell phone that fits in my back pocket today, just 15 or less than that, even 10 years ago would have taken that computer that sits in our back pocket, it would’ve taken a Greyhound bus-size mainframe computer and it wouldn’t have taken a picture or played music. And you have to ask yourself and say why have they been able to transition so hard?
There are so many people focused on how do we actually bring those technology consumers. The fact is, in my industry, I think that my industry should be held to a greater standard. They should be held more accountable. Is that, why is it that in 10 or 15 or less than 20 years, we can transition like that in technology but in apparel and footwear, we still make a shirt in a shoe the exact same way that we did 100 years ago.
Host: Because it’s cheaper.
Kevin Plank: It’s just no one has been forced. You don’t hear anybody talking about it. It’s like as long as my shirts are there, my shoes are there. But you have people saying, why isn’t it made in America? The fact is, I watched ‘made in America’ disappear. When I started Under Armour in 1996 and I drove to the garment district in New York City… so 1965, the amount of apparel consumed in America, was roughly 95% of apparel consumed by America was made in America. By in 1985, it was at like 75%; by 1995, when I started the company, it was at 50%. Today it’s less than 5% of apparel consumed in America is made in America. And you look at that and say, “Should we really accept that?”
Host: But what are you saying? Are you saying that I’m going to have to pay $50-100 for my t-shirt to have it made here? Or are you saying you can do it with the same economics and the same… you have a responsibility to your shareholders and consumers have a ceiling on what they’re going to pay. So what I saw play out in the tour is that advanced technology, robotics, make it much more efficient that a machine can replace a lot of the work being done overseas in the low-cost labor markets and be done here and yet you hire additional people here to do the other human side of it. Is that what you’re looking at?
Kevin Plank: No, it’s more than that. It’s that this is meant to be the tip of the spear for how should product be produced. Let me be clear too. Consumers are not going to walk in and go, “Oh, there’s a ‘made in the USA’ label. I’m willing to pay $10 more.” The consumer is really not willing to pay a cent more. And it’s sad to say because everyone says, it should we made America, I’d love to do it and then you actually challenge them, they’re not going to do it, but everyone loves it as a feel-good item as a gift with purchase. Like if we can do it for you and at least meet that price expectation and that may be a little overplayed, you could put a premium on it. I mean the shoes that I’m wearing today were actually printed here in Baltimore, Maryland. And you look and say that’s the UA Architect but it’s a $300 shoes and so we can have statement products like that, but you have to start somewhere.
And so we’re looking and saying if we can, through all of our manufacturing we’re doing, again the majority of which 95% of our manufacturing is outside the United States as well. But if we could create a facility here where we can truly understand it, we can have our own engineers, our own designers, our own innovators here in Baltimore that are working, our product line managers, that are working in saying there may be a best practice for this, there may be a better way for us to engineer a better way for us to do this. And then we can bring that to some of our manufacturing overseas. Again, to make a shoe today, it can be anywhere from 140 to 300 different sets of hands to make a single pair of shoes. And you’re going, if that cost structure was lower and we could figure out how to get it down to 30 or 40 sets of hands, those are the kinds of things you could bring it here. And again, there would be the ability to pass on that price to other places but there are so many other benefits to today on our industry. We’re working 18 months lead time from design to actually printing product and actually selling product in-store. And you look and say there must be a better way for us to do this.
Host: So are you saying that your ultimate goal here would be more jobs in the United States producing Under Armour gear? Not all Under Armour gears can be made in this country. It’s just not going to happen. But you’re saying fewer overseas jobs and more here as good as you can do.
Kevin Plank: But we’re saying, we’re just going to take the first step. Because right now there’s no one who’s coming to us. The United States government isn’t coming and saying, we really want to incentivize you to bring manufacturing back.
Host: But what about all these politicians that are talking about bringing jobs back?
Kevin Plank: So, I think it’s said, but I’m the one who’s talking about bringing it back in manufacturing. It’s one thing for, and you saw it. I mean, the great support, don’t get me wrong, in order for us to put this together, it took an incredible combination between the support from the city and the state and even the federal. There are people from the White House over here today. So that’s happening, but make it actionable. You know, look, I get invited and you attend plenty of entrepreneurship conferences. But to see what does that mean to be an entrepreneurship conference? Like what are we doing to truly…I get it, we’re making things, but we’re making more apps and frankly, we are becoming more digital and so we’re going to have an issue that we’re going to see what jobs will continue to exacerbate itself.
And so unless we figured out how to take some of these easy sorts of no brainer jobs that are currently are again for Under Armour’s sake, will be hundreds of thousands of jobs employing people outside of America. And this isn’t just a native, the USA campaign either. It’s that number one, our ambition is to be a global company. We don’t just want to be an American or a Maryland or Baltimore company. We want to be global citizens. And that means that people in Sao Paulo, they want product built in Brazil. People in Europe they want product that is from there. Like people in America, we want things from here. And again, it has to make business sense. You know, this can’t be something that’s just relying on the virtue or the good intent of anyone individual business person is that it’s got to make great business sense. And then we’re doing this because we think we can make a better product, we think we do it more efficiently, be closer to the market, with shorter timelines and save ourselves on shipping and production and warehousing and all those other kinds of things that come into it.
Host: Port Cummington as a whole, when you look all in, how many net new jobs, full-time jobs do you expect to come here?
Kevin Plank: Thousands or tens of thousands. So if it works. Again, this is a long pot, so let me be clear. I think people sort of look at it and say, Oh, boy, they’ve got it all figured out. Like we took this old industrial Portland that nobody would touch. We made 13 or 14 different acquisitions of over 45 different parcels of land to assemble 260 acres of downtown Baltimore waterfront underneath of 95, Now this is land that needs remediation. It’s old industrial. There was no one we kicked out. There were no living neighbors that we had in any of the properties that we bought. So think about that. We’re saying, you know what? We see a vision here for us to make something greater. And with the emphasis of Under Armour, with that 50-acre flag that we stick in the ground, we think that we can build it a center of energy that can actually flow over and be more. Like the one thing that’s really important that we talk about at our new campus is there are no walls to a new campus.
You know, it’s that safety and security. But let the energy of our campus, of our thousands of young people, average age 29 years old of our average employee. Like let that bleed out into the city and let the city bleed in us. And maybe not the best word to use, but let’s let the energy build. And that’s why having things like this, a center of creativity that other entrepreneurs can look at and say, man, God the fact that half of the millennials believe the American dream is dead is probably one of the things that I’m more proud of about Under Armour every day. Is that I love inspiring little boys and little girls to throw on an Under Armour t-shirt or pair of shoes and go, man, I can do anything cause I’m wearing Under Armour.
Host: You say if it works and you’ve emphasized it, how risky of a bet is this?
Kevin Plank: I mean, Under Armour will have a campus there, but it’s like what other things can go with the campus. But I don’t want people living in the suburbs, driving into our city, going to work and then leaving. That’s not failure, that’s a missed opportunity. So we have the opportunity to take the growth of our company that again, we said it would be seven and a half billion dollars by 2018. The last time the Baltimore Ravens played the Buffalo bills, the article that was written in the Wall Street Journal simply said, “The only two NFL cities without a Fortune 500 company.” And you look at that and say, what a miss. So the ability for us, again, that rate is a little above 5 billion. So returning a Fortune 500 company to a city like Baltimore, we’re incredibly proud of that but we’re not going to stop there.
Host: You’ve said that you want to make Baltimore the coolest city in the world. You mean it.
Kevin Plank: What I believe is that I want ambition. So if I said what’s the big vision for Port Covington for our company, it’s to utilize the growth of our brand, of our company to really be able to drive and build to inspire the 22-year-old graduating from college in 15 years, 10 years, maybe it’s five years from now. And maybe they’re going, you know what, what are you do when you get out of school? And they’ll say, I got a one in 10,000 chance of getting a job at Under Armour because it’s so hard to get a job there. But either way I’m gonna move to Baltimore cause it’s the coolest city in the world. If you can accomplish that, talk about figuring out how to win, that would be great.
Host: I report a lot on the city of Detroit, for example. And you’ve seen Detroit go through a lot of the same struggles as Baltimore and it ultimately all comes down to jobs and missed opportunities. You’ve said this isn’t just a Baltimore story, this is an American story. What happens Kevin, if things like the investment Under Armour’s making here don’t happen, what happens to American cities without sort of moonshots? Yeah.
Kevin Plank: I don’t know. I mean, I’d hate to sit here and try to guess what that would be or what that would look like. But I do know that if it does work, imagine if we could crack this code. Like, imagine we get actually cracked and figure the formula out for like.. again, Ferguson in Baltimore I thought were pretty unfair and the whole world’s the country at least is looking going, Oh look at these poor these cities and don’t pity us. And then again, don’t deal with it Oh, that’s too bad for your city. And whether it is Detroit or whether it’s the articles or the bad press they’ve had. And Dan Gilbert is a great visionary man who’s inspired me on many levels as well. And we’ve been able to share notes on sort of the things that Dan is doing in Detroit and what we’re doing here and going instead of this is an American problem
Like go to any American city that you’re not driving through two parts of it. Where it was, on the day of the Freddie Gray incident, it wasn’t somebody sitting in a corporate office somewhere and looking out and saying there’s a different world that’s happening. Like whether it’s the murders or the other things that are happening in some of the rates that you see in any city that’s not reflected, I think through the city that many, see. And again, it paints a bit of an unfair narrative, but it’s one that’s gotta be dealt with. And that means we need to support our law enforcement. We need to support our politicians. We need to support our cities themselves. And again, the best way that I can think for Under Armour to be able to do that, keep growing and have more jobs, hire more people, and again, make sure that it’s a diverse workforce. It actually is inclusive of the people of this city.
Host: So to people who might hear that and say, what? This is a company where, as you said, 95% of their goods are made overseas. What do you say to them?
Kevin Plank: I say look, start with the intent. I mean there’s no manufacturing in this country. Like, I don’t know how to say it any easier, but I started in grandma’s basement making my first shirt. And then I went to a little tailor in Beltsville, Maryland to New York City and then out of New York City to a friend in Pennsylvania, to Allentown, Pennsylvania to Bellaire, Ohio, back to Baltimore, Maryland. And finally I just said we can’t keep up with the production because we ran out of shops. And at the time, this is ’98, ’99, 2000, it was like manufacturing was closing down, the mills were closing down in the Carolinas. Like, we’ve been there, I’ve watched it happen. And now it feels like it’s time that this is the beginning to settle. And now it’s so what can we do? So now we’re finally in a position where, first and foremost, again, we’ve got to keep driving. You know, we’re in a pretty competitive market. So this isn’t Under Armour’s job is to solve the job issue in America. We’re just going, you think that you can make a couple of steps. And with that, we think that that can lead to some pretty great and positive things.
Host: So you mentioned the word competition. Is the word Nike even uttered in these halls?
Kevin Plank: Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that when you walked in there. No but look, we have very good competition. You know, they’re very good at what they do. And we have great respect for them too. It doesn’t make us like them, it doesn’t mean they like us. And it means that they do the kind of things that big companies do to little companies. And it means that we have the kind of advantages that little companies can do to big companies. So is it a fair fight? I don’t know if it’s a fair fight, but we’re in the fight and this isn’t…I’m 43, I got no better ideas of what else to do for about the next several decades. So I think going out and building the biggest, baddest brand on the planet becomes a number one sports brand in the world is probably a pretty good ambition.
Host: What’s going to tell you, you did it, you made it?
Kevin Plank: I don’t know. I think, there’s been a lot of celebration and one thing that I’ve learned is this year we celebrate our 20th year in business. And we weren’t great for a long time, is that we’re just running so hard. You know, one of the things that somebody said at Under Armour, when you have so much growth we’ve had 24 consecutive quarters of 20% plus top-line revenue growth, is that being sometimes at Under Armour, it’s like being at Under Armour is like if you went to the County fair and the biggest event of the County fair would be the pie-eating contest. And it’s where the County commissioner would come out and they’d be hosting it and all of a sudden you’d go out and you tie your hands behind your back and you’d go to the pie eating contest and you’re winning the pie eating contest and then your reward for winning the pie eating contest is more pie.
It’s welcome to growth; welcome, getting back in the saddle. And that’s something that really struck me and I don’t want to be that company. Like I want to be having a great time with that. I want to be celebrating our wins. I want to be having fun and that’s important. And over 20 years, you learn all kinds of different lessons and we’ve learned a lot of them. But I think the upside is, is that if we’re right, if what we have and I’m going to go back just to the idea of what’s the opportunity, if we can say that the growth of an Under Armour that I don’t think comes every day and I say that humbly, but I believe it doesn’t come every day
Host: Take me back to the toll booth. Did you really cry in a toll booth?
Kevin Plank: It was a little after the toll booth that I cried. It was when I went home, I think it was just before. So the story was, on Fridays, sometimes back in the early days, I would actually head up to Atlantic City and I would try to basically increase the size of my bank account. So I would go to the bank about 1:59 PM, I’d withdraw everything that I had from the bank and leaving myself a little bit of room. And I’d come back on the following and realize I’d had to have the money back in the bank by 9:01 AM on Monday morning. So I went and I withdrew a bit of that money, everything in my bank account. Drove to Atlantic City, filled my car with gas before I left, drove up Route 40 out to AC and by the time I got there, I got down, I withdrew 2,500 bucks.
I needed 5,000 to cover the checks and the checking account. And I went out and sure enough I was playing cards and I made the 2,500 bucks. And so I was at five grand and I was good. And then it was Oh, one more shoe and how many people have lived this world? I didn’t bet it all, but I bet I’m going to do one more hand and I’m going to put $200 down. And all of a sudden, I got a pair of eights and then they split the eights. And then I got another pair of eights. And it was this bad thing that ended up in one hand and going well, I had to do that. Next thing I lost and I was well, let me just play one more hand. And as a classic story that any gambler see, I ended up walking out of Atlantic City with nothing and thank goodness that I filled my car up with gas. And as I drove back, I realized that I was broke and I wasn’t kind of broke, broke is Ugh, I don’t have any money left, but I’m still gonna pay my rent and doing this. Like, no change in my car.
Host: You were really broke.
Kevin Plank: Like that kind of broke. And when I came through, I ended up that day having to live in the reality of going back to my mother’s house. When I came through and I was thinking to myself, it’s kind of over. And it wasn’t a belief of it’s over, but I remember stopping on the side of the road and just sitting there. And it might’ve been the last time that I physically remember tears coming from my face.
Host: What year was this? Roughly how long?
Kevin Plank: 97 ish something like that. And I remember I went to my mom’s house for dinner. And one of the things that’s probably illustrated as anything is she wasn’t the greatest cook. And so going there was wonderful to see her but not great for the food. But the PO Box that I kept for Under Armour was right next to my mom’s house. So as I went home I went to her house and she said, “How’s everything going?” I’m a big advocate of optimism of free stimulus and “Everything’s great. Don’t worry about it.” And she said, “You’re doing okay.” I was “Yeah, yeah, we’re doing fine. We’re doing fine.”
And that’s when I walked back out the house [crying sound] basically again. And after dinner that night, I’m thinking to myself I didn’t pick the right one, this wasn’t the right choice. And I went after the wrong thing. It’s a real shame. And then when I went up to the PO Box, it was actually our accounting wasn’t perfect then, but I had this old receivable from Georgia Tech and inside was a check for, it was close to $8,000.
Host: It kept you going.
Kevin Plank: And I remember thinking to myself opening that PO Box, point that out and seeing this institutional check and going, Oh my gosh, this is incredible. And then I crack it open and seeing the $8,000 is back in business, be at it tomorrow. I’ll never doubt myself again. And that was basically it. That was the last time that I ever really questioned, did I picked the right idea? Am I doing the right thing?
Host: Yeah, I had read, you’ve said you never really thought that Under Armour couldn’t happen.
Kevin Plank: Yeah. I think it’s a much better way that people, do you pinch yourself, are you impressed? You believe it’s a good thing, a great thing. I never believed the answer I love to give is that while I never know exactly what it’s gonna look like or the roadmap or the company or the products or any of those things I just truly, I never believed it couldn’t happen. And I use a lot of people that wake up every morning saying, not for me. This won’t happen there. This would never work. It’s why not? Why not us? Why not me? Why not our team? Why not this city? Why not Under Armour?
Host: What do people not know about the story of Under Armour? Because this is a pretty well-known story now, frankly. And you, in this company, I think will be a case study in the top business schools across America for many, many years. But what do folks not know about how you got here, why this is happening, why Baltimore?
Kevin Plank: I think there’s still a lot more to the Under Armour story that a kid in the garment district or at a grandma’s house in Georgetown. And the most exciting thing to me is probably the new story that’s being written every day. You know, this is a great chapter and what’s happening. You know, we end every presentation with that same line. You saw it in the video that we ran inside and it just says, ‘We’re just getting started.” And that idea is probably what’s most exciting to me is when I do it…I remember I had somebody once said to me, he said, don’t ever get tired of telling that grandma’s house story. And I won’t. And I will if I can talk to some of the insurance that we have here from the kids from Baltimore City, they get to come and see it and go why not you? Why couldn’t you do it? I didn’t have any money. I didn’t really know what I was doing either.
Host: Did anyone big bet on you? Cause from what I understand in your story, there was no sort of one person that made a big bet on you or that you attribute this to, right?
Kevin Plank: I mean, great support from my mother, from my family that helped early. My father passed away when I was 19 years old. And that was something for me that I look at it and say it was almost…I see people limited sometimes by people, they look up to too much. And that to me was one of the things where I realized that it was the ambition. I really asked her why I went to go play football and I just wanted to earn a scholarship. I wanted to get off the payroll and my parents. I wanted to be my own man. I wanted to be my own person. I didn’t want to be defined by anyone else.
And I see a lot of times, I see people leaning on parents or trusted advisors or others that just don’t have like..I think they’re speaking from a place that probably isn’t as heartfelt. Like if I listened and asked anybody that’ll listen to me, do you think Under Armour is a good idea? Like there was nobody in 1996 going, “Way to go, kid. You’re gonna put your entire savings into this? You’re betting you’re whole career on it and you want to go borrow money and go into debt for it too?” Like everybody I talked to said, “You’re crazy.” There was no one person, there was no big investor.
Host: You’re crazy. We don’t need better t-shirts.
Kevin Plank: Yeah. Why would anybody want to put women’s lingerie on their body?
Host: When you bring up the death of your father. I know my father died when I was 15 and I feel like I’ve lived my entire adult life trying to make him proud and just driving so hard. What impact did your father’s death have on you as you built this company?
Kevin Plank: I think again, it taught me that there was no one person. Like the one thing, it’s interesting is when entrepreneurs come up to me and ask me and say, can you give me one piece of advice? Like tell me one thing that’s sort of changed my world. And it’s there is no one thing. Like there’s I’ve been fortunate enough to meet most of the great ones and whether it’s Howard Shelter, Richard Branson, and all these amazing entrepreneurs and there’s not one thing that anybody does. You know, when I think about how my dad related to that, I think sometimes people are looking and going Oh, dad told me not to do it. Mom told me not to do it. There is no Oracle. There is no one person that you can go to who has all the answers that just says, don’t worry, I’m going to make your life easier.
The hardest thing about being on your own is that you have to make those decisions. And again, it’s whether I encourage companies with less than, I don’t know, 50 million in revenue, at least 100 million in revenue, don’t get a board of directors. Like, you don’t want somebody coming in and advising you yet that doesn’t really know because I don’t think you can attract smart enough or big enough people that would actually be able to give you great advice. It’s not the local taxidermist, I don’t want to detract from any one’s trade, but to be an entrepreneur is hard and there’s a lot of decisions and somebody showing up and saying you didn’t ask me that question and you should really lean on me. Like you need to have enough strength and conviction to actually make the best decision for your company, not what somebody else saw. And their limited experience in the field is probably not related to you.
Host: So you like to quote the philosopher Mike Tyson who says “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” When did you get punched in the face?
Kevin Plank: I mean, yeah, we’ve felt it over and over. There’s no venture capital. There was no somebody that says, my gosh, you’re a genius. You’re going to be the next great entrepreneur. I was a kid who was selling lemonade. I was mowing lawns, I was shoveling snow, I was parking cars, I was bartending, I was bouncing. I was doing whatever could just to get through and somehow you have to find a way. One of the things I’m probably most proud of at Under Armour as well is that I’d hate to think that the three most important jobs in America are the admissions directors to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And I think it’s one the things I’m most proud of at Under Armour. Is that yeah, I went to a state school and I didn’t have it all figured out and I didn’t finish the top of my class. I was a good student, that I wasn’t in high school. And it was just the maturation is that don’t let kids get labeled and don’t label yourself or let anyone else, especially label you. You know, in the early years of when you’re just getting started in your business and your companies that it’s up to you. And it truly is. It’s this idea of manifest destiny that if you believe it, if you have that unbelievable optimism that I can do it.
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