Under Armour founder Kevin Plank sees himself as the underdog

Kevin Plank may have sold the first Under Armour shirts from the back of his car, but as his reach has grown, so too have his wheels: These days, he jets around the world, recently to five Asian cities in six days, but managed to get back home to Baltimore to watch a member of his celebrity-filled stable of athletes play in a game.

That would be his 9-year-old son, James, playing in a Little League game in Baltimore County. Like any sideline dad, Plank showed off a few photos on his cellphone, scenes from a spring evening more Norman Rockwell than Under Armour, whose thumping ads feature glaring athletes seemingly in training not for a mere game but a coming apocalypse.


"Here's a good one," Plank says, narrating the pictures as he flips through them a few days later. "Here's him running. … Here's my boy playing. … And then all of a sudden, I noticed that his laces were too long.

"So I took a picture," Plank says, coming to a close-up of his son's black cleats, with, indeed, excess lace-age tied in an oversized loop. "And I emailed that to our team and said: Why are the laces long? Then I said: Why is the logo a black logo? It should be a white logo on the shoe."


At 40, Plank may be the CEO atop a sprawling, billion-dollar, 6,000-employee enterprise, but he still sweats the details. There just are more of them now, many more than in 1996 when the just-graduated University of Maryland football player was developing a new kind of athletic undergarment from the basement of his grandmother's townhouse.

And there is, particularly this time of year, Sagamore Farm, the historic Baltimore County estate that he bought five years ago with the express purpose of breeding and raising a Triple Crown winner — and which in true Plank style has managed to spawn yet another venture, the return of Maryland rye whiskey, which will be distilled using the spring-fed water of the farm's creeks.

There's not much that naturally connects athletic gear to thoroughbred horses to rye whiskey, except the restless entrepreneurial mind of Plank. There is something of the showman, or perhaps circus ringmaster, in Plank, someone who admittedly sells not just product but story.

And for Plank, it is a story inextricable from its setting.

Baltimore and its blue-collar ethos, Maryland and its horse racing tradition, College Park and the Terps teams to which he is a generous donor — they ground and inspire him. Even now, or perhaps especially now, that his focus is on expanding Under Armour's international market.

"I'm from Maryland," he remembers repeating to someone he met at a recent dinner in New York, a man who couldn't understand why he didn't move to a state with a more business-friendly tax structure. "I can't move, because I'm from Maryland.

"This is our town. If we don't stay and fight for our town, who's going to stay and fight for it?" Plank said.

The underdog

Central to his personality, say those who know him, are his competitiveness and a need to feel like the underdog up against the bigger guys (read: Nike), making it no surprise that he eventually found his way to a city in which that is something of a civic subtext.

"What he may have lacked in size and speed," said Tom Mullikin, a high school friend and football teammate, "he made up with determination and fortitude."

Mullikin, who now manages Sagamore Farm, said Plank was always an entrepreneur, remembering how he would get his friends to help him with a rose-delivery service he ran on Valentine's Day. Among those who would run roses for Plank were his future wife, Desiree Jacqueline "D.J." Guerzon.

"I was his biggest upseller," D.J. Plank said. "'You can get them boxed, but for another $10, I can stick them in a vase, and it'll really show you care.'"

They met in high school, when each was dating a friend of the other. They ran into each other as students in College Park, where Kevin Plank walked on to the football team, and happily discovered those high school romances had ended.

After dating off and on for the next 10 years, they married in 2003. A neonatal nurse, she gave up the demanding job when they started a family. In addition to James, the Planks have a 6-year-old daughter, Katherine.

Raised in the Washington suburb of Kensington, Plank moved to his late grandmother's Georgetown townhouse after college but set up shop in Baltimore in 1998. After outgrowing a couple of other buildings, Plank moved Under Armour's headquarters to its current location in Tide Point, the complex of brick buildings where Procter & Gamble once manufactured its various soap products.

For Plank, sports are a way of celebrating a city, even branding it. After a year in which Phelps exited the Olympic stage as its most-medaled star, the Orioles finally made it back to the postseason and the Ravens won the Super Bowl, Plank sees these triumphs as part of the story that needs to be told.

"We are a city that's in need of new branding," he said. "We need to find what that voice is. … We're so much harder on ourselves than people on the outside are. We need to overcome that. We need to be proud of our city.

"That's why things like the Super Bowl are so important, where we have the ability for everyone to celebrate and be proud. I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans for that game, and that sense of pride, seeing all those purple jerseys (I call it the Baltimore tuxedo) and perfect strangers giving high fives and handshakes — that type of civic pride is something that's very, very special."

Plank would love for his horses at Sagamore Farm, which he bought in 2007, to become something of Baltimore's third professional team. His foray into this rarefied world of thoroughbred racing is an unlikely tale.

"So my love of horses began in College Park, with me and 10 friends on two couches and a keg of beer in the back of a truck, heading to Pimlico at 6 a.m. to mark our place in the middle of the Preakness infield, where we never saw a horse run," Plank said wryly.

And yet over the years, Plank saw how the Preakness was being "taken for granted" and was alarmed at talk that the state might even lose the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

In recent years, Plank's Preakness party has become something like the local version of Vanity Fair's Oscar-night fete, the hot ticket that draws celebrities and corporate bigwigs, as does the company's tent at the finish line at Pimlico on the day of the race itself.

"We need more great days in our city. It's the one day of the year … outside of maybe a Monday Night Football game or a G7 summit in Annapolis or something, where people from all over the country, if not all over the world, are saying, 'Look what's happening in Maryland today,' " he said.

Plank thinks the scene should be even bigger, showing the city's best side to outsiders — and those Under Armour would recruit to its ranks.


"When you see the azaleas are out, the flowers are blooming, it smells like fresh-cut grass and there's a race and there's an experience happening, and there's just theater — it's energy," Plank says.


Plank bought the farm in 2007, which despite a storied history of spawning champions had fallen into disrepair.

"He likes to work on broken things," Mullikin said. "It provides a challenge for him."

Expanding aims

The farm has been restored and has seen some successes on the racetrack — something, Mullikin said, that feeds "that competition we miss now that we're in our 40s and not playing sports ourselves anymore."

The farm has taken Plank down yet another path: There are two spring-fed creeks, whose waters are a constant 56 degrees. With 530 acres at his disposal, Plank started thinking about what else he could do with the land, such as plant grapes.

"But I'm not really a wine person," he thought.

He hit upon another proud, and lost, Maryland tradition: rye whiskey. Plank hired someone from the Maker's Mark bourbon distillery in Kentucky and expects to produce his first batch of Sagamore-born rye in three years. He's tasted an early batch and says it has a cinnamon quality.

Under Armour, though, remains Plank's day job — and given that he rarely sleeps more than four hours a night, his are long days.

Its origin story is by now familiar and yet no less impressive: During his playing days, he felt weighted down by the cotton T-shirt he wore under his football uniform and thought there had to be a new kind of undergarment that would wick away rather than retain perspiration.

He tested different fabrics, had some samples sewn up and began selling them to college teams, eventually branching out in multiple directions. This year, its17th, the company expects net revenues to exceed $2 billion.

A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, the former CEO of Alex. Brown and one-time third-highest-ranking CIA official, considers serving as the lead director on Under Armour's board "one of the greatest experiences of my life.

"I'm blown away by him," Krongard said. "He has just an incredible intuition, just a sense of what is good. He's absolutely consumed by quality, and he's an indefatigable worker."

He met Plank after his son, a former Navy SEAL, came back from a deployment and wanted to personally thank the Under Armour chief for the big box of apparel he had sent the team. Krongard set up the meeting, and Plank sought him out for advice when he took the company public in 2005

A perennial on those best-place-to-work lists, Under Armour attracts an athletic, youthful staff. Plank himself exudes a broad-shouldered heartiness that seems fitting in either a locker room or a boardroom.

His first employee, Kip Fulks, is still on board, having risen to the rank of chief operating officer. He and Fulks, who played lacrosse at Maryland, met during their final year in college through a friend, and Plank gave him the sales pitch on his new undershirts.

Fulks remembers the euphoria of seeing the business grow, often through word of mouth among college athletes. "It was positive reinforcement 101," Fulks said.

Their own alma mater is of course an Under Armour school, as athletic apparel companies increasingly compete for all-important outfitting rights. Plank is also one of Maryland's biggest donors, writing checks and volunteering his private jet for the athletic department's needs — he's suspected as a powerful voice, justifiably or not, whenever the school changes coaches or, as it did recently, conferences.

But for Terps football coach Randy Edsall, Plank has been invaluable in raising the school's national profile. The crazy-quilt "Maryland Pride" uniforms that debuted a couple of seasons ago "created a buzz" not just in the media but among the football talent that the school would like to recruit, Edsall said.

"When you're dealing with 17- to 22-year-olds, they love that," said Edsall, who came to Maryland from a Nike school, the University of Connecticut, in 2010. "They love the Under Armour gear. They love the creativity that Under Armour brings."

Despite the suspicions, Plank isn't pulling strings behind the scenes in College Park, according to Edsall.

"It's very limited what donors can do," Edsall said of NCAA rules. "He's very proud of being a football alumnus. He's come down and talked to our team. The one thing is: Whenever you need something, he's there. He's very competitive. He wants to win at whatever he does."

As a boss, Plank is direct and demanding, Fulks said, and runs an office that is "focused and energetic.

"He always has a point of view. It's very easy to understand where you're at in the moment and what he wants you to do," he said. "I find it very refreshing. I'm very black-and-white, but it does not work for everybody."

Even as his interests veer off in other directions, Plank is not done with Under Armour. He has rebuffed takeover offers, saying no one has ever quoted a price that he thought was greater than the company's potential under his guidance.

"But you have to understand, I think our company can be really big," Plank said, "and more importantly, I think it can be really great."

Plank sees the company breaking into the Fortune 500 ranks in the next five years, restoring that particular luster to the city, which lost its last such company when Exelon took over Constellation Energy. His company's fortunes are entwined with the city's, he says.

"Telling people in these other markets, these other places, explaining to them the key to this brand and the key to what our growth will be: Frankly, it comes from Baltimore. And we're very proud of that," Plank said. "We're very proud of keeping this city on a global map."

Plank, admittedly, doesn't have much free time, but considers himself lucky to love his work. "When I get it, I'm very selfish with it," he says of the off-hours that he'll spend with his family in their Lutherville home.

"When he's home, he's home 110 percent," D.J. Plank said. The four of them like riding ATVs and bikes around the property and visiting the horses at Sagamore.

Friends say he is generous, taking a group of them recently on a trip to Richard Branson's private island in the British Virgin Islands. Plank is still getting back to form after tearing his hamstring while water skiing last summer, but hopes to run at least part of the Under Armour-sponsored Baltimore marathon this fall.

Torn muscles aside, Plank nonetheless continues to "walk with a purpose," one of the company's stated values, used in its branding and, with no spaces between the words, as the name for one of the Sagamore fillies. Where all that purposeful walking is headed, even Plank can't predict at this point, although it surely will be part of the story he plans to continue telling.


"We don't know how it ends," he says, "so we get up and we go to work every day."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun