Under Armour's Plank does capitalism correctly

Kevin Plank is worth half a billion dollars. No surprise that the Plank family enjoys a Ferrari in the garage, a beach house at Rehoboth and vacations to Disney World and the ski slopes.

But unlike many others in the capitalist aristocracy, he deserves each dime. In a country crippled by quicksilver profiteers, Plank, founder of Baltimore sports clothier Under Armour, reminds us of what getting rich in America is supposed to be about.

And what it shouldn't be about.

Our kids probably think the way to wealth is issuing mortgages to people who can't afford them and then flipping the paper before it goes into default.

Role model Angelo Mozilo did a fabulous job of this at Countrywide Financial. He's worth what published reports have estimated to be more than $500 million — even after settling civil charges of securities fraud and insider trading two weeks ago for $68 million.

Or maybe young people want to be a hedge-fund manager like John Meriwether. He got rich buying and selling electronic symbols on a screen. Shame about his first two funds, including the notorious Long Term Capital Management. They shut down after terrible losses.

Meriwether just opened fund No. 3, according to news reports.

Robert Nardelli took a popular route to riches. The board of Home Depot fired him as CEO for doing a bad job and punished him with a golden-parachute payout valued by The New York Times at $200 million. Never underestimate the power of Fortune 500 bosses to divert shareholder money into their silk-lined pockets.

You can also become mega-wealthy by wiping out people's jobs.

Executive Chairman Nolan Archibald will collect a bounty of tens of millions of dollars for laying off thousands at toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker to cut costs. Since Stanley Works bought Black & Decker this year, former Black & Decker CEO Archibald has moved to close a distribution center in Tennessee, shut down factories in Illinois, Rhode Island and Czechoslovakia and lay off dozens in Maryland, according to news reports.

So tell your kids about Kevin Plank instead.

He built a business from scratch. He had a brilliant idea. He risked his own money. You can feel, wear and stack his products. There's no fine print. He hasn't been bailed out by anybody.

His equity in Under Armour really did come from sweat, not board cronies awarding shares in a company built by somebody else.

Plank makes money from long-term growth, not downsizing.

Last week, Under Armour estimated that sales will exceed $1 billion this year for the first time. The company booked third-quarter earnings of $35 million, beating analysts' estimates again and exceeding profit from the same period last year by a third.

Under Armour employs 1,700 in Maryland and another 1,600 around the world — not counting thousands of jobs in contract factories (mostly in foreign countries) that make Under Armour products.

It sells compression T-shirts, athletic shoes and gear around the world. Plank and his team merged locker-room cred with marketing savvy to scare Nike and other sports-apparel giants out of their cotton jockstraps.

The stories of how Plank conceived the sweat-wicking, synthetic-fiber T-shirt, how he sold it out of a Ford Explorer at Atlantic Coast Conference schools, how he convinced Oliver Stone's team to put it in the 1999 film, "On Any Given Sunday," have been well-told.

Less known is how he financed the startup on credit cards and later risked personal bankruptcy by guaranteeing a $3 million loan for Under Armour. He was 24. He was supposed to make a salary of $26,000 a year in the early days but often tore up his paycheck when cash was tight.

New Kevin Planks wait in the wings, he believes, economy notwithstanding.

"There are probably more great ideas in a garage somewhere, where somebody is saying, 'It's not quite ready yet,' or 'I don't have the income,' " he said on the phone last week. "Is it impossible? No, it's not impossible. Is it difficult? Of course, it's difficult." Dealing with difficulty, he said, "is the litmus test of whether you should or shouldn't make it."

Wealth and fame haven't made him a jerk.

He cut his base salary back to $26,000, same as in the startup days, because the company missed financial goals in the recent slump. (He still got a bonus of $718,575 last year.) He drives a Jeep Wrangler and leaves the Ferrari in the garage. Unlike most big shot CEOs he doesn't have an employment contract. Or a "supplemental executive retirement plan." He gets a 401(k) along with the administrative assistants.

He doesn't even have any stock options. What a strange concept. At least it seems strange in the age of Nardelli, Mozilo and Archibald.

Can we please get back to the tradition of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Kevin Plank?

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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