Kevin A. Plank built a business on sweat.
Sick of the cotton T-shirts he wore and soaked through as a University of Maryland football player, he set off a decade ago to search for something drier. He bought stretchy fabric, made prototypes and - sure he could smell the scent of success - jumped into business for himself with credit-card financing and space in his grandmother's basement.
It's the classic American start-up tale, and everyone who knows it loves to tell it because he wasn't in the basement for long.
Now Plank's perspiration-battling company produces well over $200 million in annual revenue, employs 550 and has offices in three countries. Plank is 33 years old and about to become a multimillionaire. Even as the Baltimore-based Under Armour Inc. announced yesterday its intentions to go public, it noted that its founder will remain firmly in control.
He's an inventor who has proved himself as an executive, a rare combination.
"Kevin is really sort of an entrepreneur's entrepreneur," said Asher Epstein, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "He knows how to recognize an opportunity, get a product quickly into the market and see whether the opportunity's concrete, and then figure out how to grow and scale the business. ... A lot of times entrepreneurs get caught up with the great idea and lose sight of the implementation, and Kevin really focused on the implementation."
Plank spent a year looking for and testing fabric, producing a microfiber compression shirt that wicked sweat from the skin to the outside of the cloth. Then he put them in the hands of the people who would become his best marketers: players.
That's how he won over the Georgia Institute of Technology, his first buyer. Equipment director Tom Conner was stunned by the reaction when Plank dropped off some samples for the Georgia Tech football team to try out. "By the end of the first day, we had guys wearing sizes they couldn't even fit in because they wanted to wear it so badly," said Conner.
Other colleges followed. Then National Football League teams. Then Hollywood, which put Under Armour on screen in Any Given Sunday and The Replacements. By 2001, he'd reached into professional baseball and hockey.
Along the way, he had help from former Maryland players who made it to the NFL - like Eric Ogbogu, who plays a starring role in the company's "Protect This House" commercials. He also kept his connections to his former team, negotiating a deal last year to design the uniforms.
Plank, who according to the university graduated in 1997 with a degree in marketing, is a knowledgeable brander who helps put his company's commercial campaigns together.
But industry watchers say his success can't be explained by advertising alone. His knowledge of the interworkings of a team and the needs of players was invaluable. He knew first-hand the problem of undershirts so drenched that they actually weigh you down.
"His focus has always been on the athlete who's interested in better performance," said Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "That's what's motivated Kevin since day one."
Plank is enjoying the fruits of his - and everybody else's - sweat. He earned $1.9 million in salary and bonus last year, and his incentive package has room to grow. His contract calls for an annual bonus equal to 3 percent of Under Armour's earnings, if those earnings are between $5 million and $10 million, and 7 percent if they top $10 million. (That incentive is capped at $2.5 million.)
Last year, he moved with wife, Desiree, from the city to a $2.9 million home in Baltimore County's Green Spring Valley.
Plank was out of the country yesterday, and his company said he would not be interviewed.
The emergence of Under Armour as a homegrown icon is a coup for Baltimore, which has in the last generation seen many more public companies disappear than appear. Plank had to go against the industry grain to keep Under Armour in the area as it expanded.
"He said one of his big challenges was getting people, originally, to move to Baltimore," said John Horan, publisher of the Sporting Goods Intelligence newsletter. "Quite a few of them have lived in Portland, have lived in California, have lived in Boston, because those are the big centers for the footwear and apparel business."
The company is active in the community. It has sponsored the Baltimore Marathon from the get-go in 2001; this October will mark its third time as title sponsor.
Lee Corrigan, president of Corrigan Sports Enterprises, which runs the event with the city, said Plank plays a hands-on role and likes to challenge the thought that the way to do something is the way it's always been done.
"He was there in the meetings with the police and City Hall, and all the operational meetings we had, because he wanted a full understanding of what we did and how we did it," Corrigan said. "He won't let people take the easy way out, and he won't take no for an answer."
Sun staff reporter Heather A. Dinich contributed to this article.
Kevin A. Plank
Title: President, chief executive officer and chairman of Under Armour Inc.
Residence: Green Spring Valley
Education: Graduated from the University of Maryland in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in marketing.