How Kevin Plank Turned a Homemade T-shirt Into a $3.5 Billion Empire

How Kevin Plank Turned a Homemade T-shirt Into a $3.5 Billion Empire

Anyone who has known Kevin Plank for a while is not all that surprised by the phenomenal success of Under Armour. By the time he launched the company from his grandmother’s row house in 1996, he’d already pulled off several lucrative money-making schemes.

As a college student, Plank created Cupid’s Valentine. The convenient campus rose-delivery service kept guys in their girlfriends’ good graces on February 14. He also sold $4 T-shirts to concertgoers for $10 or $15 a pop.

Plank was disappointed to be overlooked by college football teams that he’d hoped to play for, but that didn’t hold him back. He tried out and walked onto the team at the University of Maryland in the mid-90s; the gutsy move helped seal his destiny.

Today, Plank is recognized as one of the greatest innovators, risk takers, and thought leaders of his time. Nothing inspires him more than underdogs and lost causes. With Under Armour, for example, he deliberately set out to give Nike a run for its money. If that’s not entrepreneurship, what is?

Functionality is only the beginning at Under Armour. Plank’s 23-year-old brand has come to stand for intensity, drive, and determination. The tagline “I will” conveys a hunger to be the best. Many industry observers have described the brand as “attitude clothing.” It appeals to winners and those with swag, but it also inspires young athletes who have numerous obstacles to overcome.

Fortune has named Plank Businessperson of the Year. Success magazine awarded him Achiever of the Year. Sporting News has listed him among its 50 Most Influential People in Sports, and Forbes gave him a nod in its list of the Most Powerful CEOs Under 40. Plank is also a member of the Business of Fashion 500, a prestigious index of leading contributors in the fashion industry.

How did Plank get so far so fast? Here’s a recap of his company’s early years and meteoric rise.

1996

The only thing that Plank didn’t like about football was feeling clammy and weighted down by his own sweat. While playing for the Terrapins, he was motivated to invent a lightweight shirt that would keep players cool and dry. After earning a degree in business administration, he began to explore a number of moisture-wicking materials. He ultimately borrowed from the microfibers in women’s lingerie.

Plank drained his savings and spread $40,000 in debt across five credit cards. In short, he went broke to fund his idea.

He initially chose the name Body Armor. When his brother mistakenly asked how the “Under Armor” thing was going, Plank decided he liked that better. He spelled “armour” as the Brits do, with a “u,” because he needed the extra letter. He wanted to use the toll-free number 888-4ARMOUR.

His prototype shirt, the Shorty, had short sleeves. It left the midriff bare and was skintight. It provoked more than a few snickers from former teammates – that is, until they played in it. After marveling at how cool and light on their feet they felt, Plank asked his friends, many of whom had gone pro, to pass out samples in NFL locker rooms

Word-of-mouth endorsements boosted individual sales, and Plank was elated when Georgia Tech became the first team to buy the shirts. Around two dozen other Division I and professional teams jumped on the bandwagon, and sales in 1996 topped $17,000.

1997

Plank had coined the name HeatGear by this time, but he was getting a lot of requests for shirts that kept players warm instead of cool. When someone asked, “Is this available with long sleeves?” he said, “Of course!” and scrambled to the production floor in his grandmother’s basement to make that happen.

Plank eventually added ColdGear and AllSeasonGear products to make everybody happy.

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Plank relocated operations to Baltimore in 1998.

The company got a huge break when a personal friend let Plank know that he was working on Oliver Stone’s film “Any Given Sunday.” The all-star cast featured Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, and Dennis Quaid.

Attempts to feature real NFL teams fell through, so the friend put Plank in touch with the production’s costume designer. Plank sent $44,000 worth of samples, and the fictional Miami Sharks in the movie were officially clad in Plank’s products. The widespread exposure wasn’t bad, but Plank, a businessman through and through, sent an invoice for the shirts and accessories that he’d provided.

On the heels of that unexpected coup, Plank persuaded his employees to delay a couple of their paychecks to buy a half-page, $25,000 ad in ESPN The Magazine. It was a good move; over three short weeks, the ad generated about 8,000 responses and close to $800,000 in sales.

The movie and ESPN ad created greater brand awareness, and sales soon leapt to $5 million.

20012003

Plank’s company became the official supplier of NFL workout and game apparel. He also struck licensing deals with MLB and various retail partners.

2004

Plank paid tribute to his alma mater and sheer perseverance with a national TV ad featuring Eric Ogbogu, his former teammate at the University of Maryland.

“Big E,” who suffered from Blount’s disease as a child, went on to play for the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, and Dallas Cowboys. The ad made Ogbogu’s trademark saying – “we must protect this house” – famous overnight. The former athlete is now Under Armour’s director.

2005

The company went public, and the stock price doubled within the first day.

2006Present

A lot happened between 2006 and 2011.

When Plank added shoes with cleats to the athletic footwear division, his company became the official footwear supplier of the NFL. Revenues quadrupled during this time, and the 14-year-old company topped $1 billion in sales in 2010.

Since then, everything’s been a blur. Moisture-wicking men’s underwear and women’s sports bras have been added to the lineup. MagZip technology makes it convenient to work a zipper with one hand. Under Armour even manufactures heavy-duty umbrellas.

After buying three health and wellness apps, Plank created MapMyFitness. It is the largest digital fitness community in the world.

Tom Brady, Steph Curry, Michael Phelps, and other professional athletes have endorsed the apparel. Star soccer player Heather Mitts and prima ballerina Misty Copeland have promoted the SpeedForm bra. It’s not just attractive and comfortable; the bra is thoughtfully engineered for support and durability.

Net revenues from U.S. sales topped $3.5 billion in 2018. The company currently employs about 15,800 people.

More About Kevin Plank

What keeps Plank grounded? What motivates him? What keeps him from getting bored and passing the torch?

Kevin Plank has always made sure that his brand served a loftier purpose. His company has initiated programs to help fight breast cancer, support wounded veterans, and promote environmental causes. He has poured billions of dollars into charitable efforts, scholarships, the University of Baltimore facilities, and the betterment of Baltimore itself.

The $5.5 billion Covington Park project covers 235 acres and is expected to transform and rejuvenate the city. It is the second-largest urban development project in the country.

Plank is also big on Baltimore tradition. The purchase of a 530-acre thoroughbred farm has revived local interest in horse racing. A 22,000-square-foot distillery has caught the attention of whiskey enthusiasts from around the U.S. Sagamore Port Finish Rye snagged Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2019.

For all his success, Plank remains engaged, transparent, humble, and grateful. In business, he still favors a hands-on approach.

“You need to put your hands around the throat of your business, and you need to run it. There’s no other way,” Plank once advised entrepreneurs at the University of Maryland.

That strategy has certainly worked out well for him.