Struggling through its most difficult year since going public, Under Armour has lost several top executives and reshuffled management in recent months.
Such turnover is to be expected, some say, part of a restructuring designed to make the company leaner and stronger after years of rapid growth came to a sudden halt this year. Others see the recent moves as a sign of instability as the Baltimore athletic apparel brand struggles with growing pains and massive shifts in the retail market.
In June, as its troubles mounted, Under Armour hired a new president and chief operating officer who reports to Kevin Plank, the company’s founder and longtime chairman and CEO.
Management shakeups often come with new leadership, whether or not a company has stumbled, experts say. But Under Armour has stumbled. The company reported losses in two quarters this year and its first sale decline since it went public in 2005. Its stock value has plunged.
“They’ve obviously hit a rough patch here,” said Jason Moser, an analyst with the Motley Fool's Million Dollar Portfolio.
Under Armour, which tripled its revenue and doubled its employees over five years before the slowdown began toward the end of 2016, has said it is hitting the reset button during a transition period.
Besides a restructuring announced in August, which included cutting 280 jobs, the company also is moving from a structure focused on specific products, such as shoes, to one organized into 11 categories, such as basketball, golf, training, women, running and outdoors.
Some recent management changes have to do with that ongoing transition. Others have to do with realigning employment and job functions with a slower pace of growth.
“This year, we’ve made several strategic decisions about our structure, systems and processes,” said Kerry Chandler, Under Armour’s chief human resource officer, in an email. “As we prepare for our next chapter of growth, we are tapping great talent — internally and externally — to bring a tighter, smarter focus throughout our organization.”
The new president, Patrik Frisk, started in July, just before the company announced its restructuring. Frisk is an apparel industry veteran with nearly 30 years' experience directing brands such as The North Face and Timberland and more recently CEO of global footwear company The Aldo Group. At Under Armour, he is overseeing areas such as supply chain, sales, marketing and products, freeing up Plank to focus on the brand’s vision.
In October, a week before it reported its first quarterly sale decline, Under Armour announced that Kip Fulks, who co-founded the company with Plank, is taking a sabbatical. Fulks has bounced through a number of positions in the company, including acting chief marketing officer, chief product officer and, most recently, strategic adviser.
On Nov. 1, Andy Donkin, the chief marketing officer and former Amazon executive hired in August 2016, and Pam Catlett, a former Nike executive who joined the company as senior vice president and general manager of the women’s and youth categories in January 2016, left the company.
Peter Ruppe, a former Nike executive who had led footwear since January 2015, also recently left and was replaced late last month by Ryan Drew, previously general manager of the basketball division.
Last week, Under Armour said former Yahoo executive Michael La Guardia will become senior vice president of digital product, while Mike Lee and Albert Lee, co-founders of MyFitnessPal, which Under Armour acquired in 2015, will leave in January.
To Motley Fool’s Moser, the turnover shows the company is taking steps to fix problems.
That includes not only industrywide woes, but self-inflicted damage, he said, such as taking on excessive debt to acquire several fitness app companies over a two-year period. The apparel maker also allowed inventory to build up to get products to consumers more quickly, he said, leading to deep discounting that hurt profit margins.
The executive shifts, Moser said, may be an acknowledgment that Under Armour needs to take the business in a different direction and bring in people more aligned with a new vision.
Still, that is not enough for him to reverse his “hold” recommendation on the stock. First, he is looking for longer-term stability in current leadership, particularly with Frisk and David Bergman, a 13-year Under Armour veteran who has served as interim chief financial officer and was named to the job permanently last week.
“We expect to see them in the same positions next year, doing what they are doing still a year from now and even further out,” Moser said. “If for some reason even one of those individuals leaves, if they leave because they aren’t able to work with the current team, that’s going to be a sign to us that Kevin Plank is too difficult to work with and less interested in assembling a team of executives and more interested in assembling a team of ‘yes’ men and women.”
Moser contends that Plank’s vision, control of voting rights and hands-on approach as CEO has been both a reason to invest and a risk. The right management team should be able to take the business to the next level to better compete with much larger rival Nike, he said.
“Frisk, with his expertise in the industry, is an important part of the puzzle,” he said. "We want to see that Plank is able to assemble a team of diverse opinions that can challenge his thinking and encourage him to make the best decisions.”
Other take a dimmer view of the departures. In a recent post, Laura Hoy, a top-rated contributor to InvestorPlace, said they help explain why the company’s stock has plummeted.
“That many managers jumping ship at a time when the company is clearly struggling is worrying from an investor’s standpoint,” Hoy said. “Not only does it suggest that they don’t see [Under Armour] heading in a profitable direction, but it also calls into question the stability and direction of the company’s overall strategic plans…
“With so many departures so close together, it is worth waiting to see whether or not the new team will be able to come together and give investors a reason to believe” in the stock.
Some research suggests that too much change in top management can hurt a company’s performance. A study by human resources professors at the University of Kansas School of Business in 2014 examined top management team turnover. In general, the research found, as turnover goes up, performance goes down.
“It has to do with tacit knowledge, which comes from experience, the kind of stuff you learn only through experience,” and from developing social connections within the company and industry, said James D. Guthrie, the university’s William and Judy Docking professor of management who co-authored the study. “When people start to leave, that’s disrupted, and the company’s social fabric is ripped apart. The culture of how we get things done disappears when people walk out the door.”
Underestimating the cost of turnover, many firms have increased outside hiring in top management, he said. But it can be a positive move, he said, when companies fill top jobs by promoting from within, as Under Armour has done in some instances.
“A lot of firms do well when they groom people over time,” he said.
Sam Poser, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group, said he is less concerned about management changes than about whether those changes help the company maintain its position as a premium brand “when you’re selling product into the moderate channel and better retailers are cutting back.”
Poser has criticized Under Armour for its decision to sell its sports apparel and shoes at Kohl’s, Designer Shoe Warehouse and Famous Footwear, all retailers where the brand has expanded this year. He said the company risks diluting the strength of its brand and hurting profit margins with that strategy.
“Changes [in management] may be good, but they have a lot of work to do, and they have to do it fast,” he said.