Kevin Plank is the founder and CEO of Baltimore Based Under Armour, a name and brand which astonishingly considering all of the players that preceded it, has become synonymous with athletic play and probably the only brand that is thought of as a “must have” extension a uniform and as necessary equipment.
Similarly to brands that have become the generic name for a whole category or general class of products like Band-Aid (adhesive bandages), Kool-Aid (flavored drink mix), Q-Tip (Cotton Swab), Kleenex (paper tissue), or popsicle (flavored ice), even if your wet/dry/hot/cold garment was made by some other brand, chances are you still call it Under Armour. Meaning, although Band-Aid is the name of a specific brand of adhesive bandages made by Johnson & Johnson; the brand name has so permeated American cultural that without even thinking or noticing, when referring to any adhesive bandage, automatically most call it a Band-Aid. Under Armour has achieved this same kind of status, which signifies its dominance and mind-share.
In 1996 at the age of 23, Kevin Plank a serial entrepreneur, who ran multiple businesses while still in college at the University of Maryland; began to put into action an idea born out of the frustration and irritation of having sweat drenched T-Shirts after every football game and practice. A natural problem solver, Plank knew there had to be a better way and set out to create it.
On a Saturday morning in Washington DC, at St. John’s, his high school alma mater, Kevin Plank addresses a group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the orientation for the Grass Roots youth football league. The mixed audience of mostly African American, some White and Latino players and parents, mostly had no clue who he was, at least at first. It wasn’t until about the middle of his speech when he said, “I started Under Armour because…,” that the audience perked up, began to take notice and started to pay attention. Since CEOs of multi-billion dollar sportswear companies don’t typically frequent youth football club meetings, initially most thought he was just a representative of the brand — no big deal. Outside of the obvious, (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Phil Knight…), CEO’s of corporations aren’t generally household names. However, with that statement, the shift of attention in the room was palpable. Heads began to turn and look up from devices, people stopped fidgeting, stopped day dreaming and started to really listen. Most recognized that it’s one thing to have an Under Armour representative at a youth football meeting. That can happen any day, anywhere. However, it is another thing altogether to have the founder and CEO of Under Armour at your meeting. Now that’s a very rare treat.
“I come from the same place you come from,” Plank said to the players. “ I was sitting in that chair. Where you are right now is the exact same chair that I sat. It was one of these moments like this and I can’t point to the exact moment, but it was a moment like this that I decided that I wanted to be different.”
He told them about a time when he wasn’t as serious and wasn’t as focused. He went on to explain how he ended up at St. Johns after getting kicked out of school at Georgetown Prep (a upscale prep school in Bethesda MD), for not living up to the school’s standard of academic performance. Oh yeah, he also got into a fight with players from a rival high school football team which certainly didn’t help matters much. Even then Plank’s Under Armour company mantra of “Protect This House,” apparently was prevalent in mind and attitude.
Talking to the young players, Plank shared his story, telling them how he had always dreamed of playing college football for the University of Maryland and how he wanted to know what it felt like to be a player on the team and run out of the tunnel onto the field on game day. He told them that although that was his goal and his mission, it wasn’t easy because he wasn’t always the best player. In fact he was never the best player. He told them because of his love of and passion for the game and his teammates and because he knew he wasn’t the best, he worked twice as hard as any player on the team saying, “hard work and the right mental attitude can eventually outshine natural talent that comes easy.” He told them there would always be someone that was better, faster, or stronger than them, but that was no excuse and no reason to not give your all and your absolute best. He told them they had to fight for what they wanted and not take no for an answer. He told them it may not be easy but if they wanted something, then they had to make up their minds, be willing to make the sacrifices and put in the work required to get it. Plank explained to them, that had he given up his dream simply because of the no’s and the rejection he faced; that he wouldn’t be standing there in front of them as the Founder and CEO of th global brand Under Armour has become.
He continued the story saying, that even with all the hard work, he still graduated high school with no offers to play college ball. However, that still didn’t stop him. Instead he stayed steadfast on his mission and enrolled as a post-graduate into Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, a college preparatory school known for grooming football players. He did this in hopes of increasing his chances of being recruited to a Division 1 college team. When the year ended, 23 players from his team were recruited to Division 1 college and university teams (including 1995 Heisman Trophy winner, Eddie George), but rejected yet again, Plank was not one of them.
Down but not out, the unrelenting Kevin Plank took his destiny into his own hands, enrolled at the University of Maryland as a walk-on player to the football team and fulfilled his dream in spite of it all. Finally, Plank got the opportunity to feel the rush of running out of the tunnel on game day to the cheers of adoring Maryland fans. For him this was bliss. True to his nature, Plank didn’t settle for a gratuitous position on the team. That would defeat the purpose of everything he had gone through to get there. He wanted an integral part on the team, set his sights on achieving that goal and eventually worked his way up to being special team’s captain, earned the title of the most enthusiastic player on the team and even managed to earn a scholarship to boot!
At the University of Maryland, Plank’s football schedule didn’t allow for full-time work, but being blessed with fortuitous ingenuity, of course Plank found a way to make money anyway. Selling T-Shirts at concerts, parking cars, and selling and delivering flowers on Valentine’s Day with his future wife, Desiree Guerzon, under the name Cupid’s Valentine, Plank had the will and he made a way. It was the money earned from these ventures ($17,000) that became seed money for Under Armour.
As Kevin Plank is the personification of the phrase, “life is what you make,” all of the things that most see as misfortune only fueled Plank’s passion and determination. These were the things that forced him to come up with alternatives that led to his eventual, actual and literal fortune that is Under Armour, a $3 billion dollar global brand that in 2014 surpassed Adidas to claim the #2 just behind Nike for overall revenue for a sportswear company. It turns out working twice as hard and sweating twice as much, was the sweat equity (pun intended) that led to the idea that created a whole new category for athletic apparel that is still growing and evolving. Speaking to the young players gathered in the St. Johns cafeteria Plank says,
“This year me and my nearly 9000 team mates at Under Armour will do more than 3 billion dollars in revenue. I say that only to say that, I sat where you sit and come from where you come from. The things and the decisions I made were personal. The decisions you have to make in the next chapters in your life are very personal. It is up to you. This is where the excuses stop, this is where the blame stops, it’s where the finger pointing stops. Just like I had to say to myself, “you have the ability to make something of yourself right now!” The hand that you are dealt is the hand that you are dealt. It’s your job to take it and do something with it.”
When it comes to college Kevin explains,
“Not everybody goes to Harvard. And you don’t need to go there to be great. You have the means right now within yourself and if there is anything I can represent to you, is I’m a guy that wasn’t most likely to succeed coming out of high school. But I made a choice. And frankly I still make choices every day.”
Plank says that the greatest compliment he ever got was from a guy named Kevin Haley, (Under Armour’s Head of Innovation), “He told me, “You are the most optimistic person I ever met in my life! ,” and goes on to say…
“I can tell that optimism is a stimulus, but great Leaders all have one thing in common — they always have a heard. People want to hear about what’s possible. Not what’s not possible. Under Armour didn’t happen because of me as an individual, Under Armour happened because of the people that I knew and the relationships that I kept.”
Throughout his high school and college football career, Plank amassed a network of about 25 friends who ended up playing in the NFL. Leveraging those connections is what helped to put Under Armour on the map. Knowing how valuable these relationships were and knowing that these players were probably being approached with an onslaught of people asking for favors, Plank was very careful about how he approached them. He positioned the pitch as though he was doing them a favor, offering them something that would enhance their performance and keep them comfortable, simply saying, “Hey if you like it, wear it.” He knew that if he got enough people to wear it and like it that it would catch on and grow organically and that’s exactly what happened.
In a mere 18 years since starting Under Armour in his grandmother’s basement, in 2014 Under Armour had it’s“Best year ever.” Sales were up 30% and stock prices also saw huge gains with a near 60% increase as well.
So no, Kevin Plank didn’t get recruited to the NFL like he once dreamed, but he found a way to stay in the game. Now, he is the one doing the NFL recruiting – so to speak. Rather than signing an NFL contract to play football, he is the one doling out the contracts and not only to NFL players, but to the vast array of athletes who represent the Under Armour brand. In addition to working hard, sticking with it; when it comes to taking the lead position in your own life and becoming the master of your own destiny, it’s put best by Kevin Plank himself, who says, “If I had to say anything, I’d say, Believe That It Can happen!”