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Plank says city must lose 'chip on our shoulder'

Can upbeat Under Armour remedy Baltimore's “underdog” sense of itself?

On sunny days, the harbor sparkles as Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank looks out from his Tide Point corner office. Across the water, he can see Canton and Fells Point, where his development firm is turning Recreation Pier into a 128-room hotel.

Plank wants Baltimore to see itself as he sees it from his office — brimming with potential. Plank, who founded the rapidly growing sports apparel and footwear company here about 18 years ago, says Baltimore needs to shed its collective self-image as a second-string city. He by no means believes that about Baltimore, but the city's sometimes bleak sense of itself is at odds with the relentless optimism of Plank, who keeps a whiteboard in his office filled with such aphorisms as "Overpromise and deliver" and "Dictate the tempo."

"I want Baltimore to be the coolest city in the world," Plank says in an interview, using the superlative he often applies to his own company and products. "Why can't we make it great?"

He is fond of equating Baltimore with Under Armour. They share a status as "underdogs," Plank says, and their fortunes are intertwined. Images of Baltimore and its most famous athletes — Ray Lewis, Cal Ripken, Michael Phelps — are part of Under Armour's message, and the company is a visible presence at the Preakness, one of the city's signature events.

But Plank is concerned that the city's identity has been shaped by former TV crime dramas "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." His company — where fit employees lift weights and stretch on a colorfully designed synthetic turf field during lunch breaks — seems sunny and upbeat by comparison.

Plank suggests his ambitions of recruiting thousands of new employees to the company hinge in part on the world's perception of Baltimore and its ability "to walk the walk" of a vibrant city.

Plank, 42, who grew up in Kensington in Montgomery County, tells of taking his kindergarten-age daughter several years ago to a traveling show in Baltimore featuring a character modeled after Dora the Explorer, the cartoon character.

"There is this one part where Dora just says: 'So, what is the best city in the whole wide world?' And she says it to the crowd. Silence," Plank says. "And I see people, and they're kind of going, 'I don't know, New York? Maybe Paris?' And then you see Dora go, 'Baltimore!' And everybody goes, 'Oh yeah, Baltimore.' You're talking about having a chip on our shoulder? And not knowing how to walk the walk? We need to walk the walk."

Baltimore's challenges — violent crime, troubled neighborhoods, lagging schools — run deeper than self-image, and Plank knows his reach is limited, says former Baltimore Development Corp. head Jay Brodie.

"He's not the police commissioner," Brodie says. "Kevin is not naive."

But Plank is unapologetic about his belief that Under Armour can elevate the city with its own behavior.

"The reason I do Preakness the way that I do, the reason I'm doing this hotel, the reason that we're investing so much in our campus and what we want here, is that I want to control the experience," he says. "And hopefully, I want to control the experience so well that it influences others to take pride."

Under Armour has donated football fields, basketball courts and fitness rooms around the city, and paid for streetscaping and landscaping near its Locust Point headquarters.

The donated fields "can unlock for young people a sense that anything is possible," says Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "When you're playing in a town that is home to the Ravens and home to the Orioles on an Under Armour field, that's a special experience."

Still, she acknowledges that the city's perception of itself can seem puzzling. She calls it a "weird contradiction."

Baltimoreans are often critical of the city and its problems, but just as quick to defend the city's reputation, Rawlings-Blake says. "It's almost like family — like I can say something bad about Baltimore, but you can't."

Baltimore's image was a frequent topic during Brodie's 16-year tenure, which ended in 2012.

When he talked to companies considering locating in Baltimore, Brodie says, he would tell them, "I trust you've seen 'The Wire,' " so he could address any concerns right from the start.

"There is something in the water that people drink in Baltimore that is pessimistic about the future," Brodie says. "There are still some tough neighborhoods and too much drugs and too much crime. Under Armour helps [the image] a great deal."

Under Armour offers the city intangible benefits, Rawlings-Blake says.

"It might be hard to quantify their ability to help specifically on some of our larger challenges," Rawlings-Blake says. "But the fact remains they have a huge economic impact, and with their philanthropic impact providing world-class fields and recreational opportunities for kids."

But the company's meteoric growth will bring tangible benefits as well, in terms of increasing tax revenue and bringing more people to the city.

Under Armour's goal is to grow from $3 billion in sales this year to $10 billion eventually. Plank says Under Armour expects to hire 475 people next year and perhaps 600 the following year, "and so the 2,000 people we have at headquarters is very quickly 6,000 or 7,000 people."

In 2012, the Baltimore City Council approved a deal in which the city would sell up to $35 million in bonds to fund infrastructure projects — including upgrades to streets and the waterside promenade — around Under Armour's headquarters.

Proceeds from Under Armour's property taxes are used to pay off the bonds, says William H. Cole IV, the former council member who now leads the BDC.

While some Occupy Baltimore members protested the city's assistance, Cole says all the improvements were for public uses. The company used its own money to clean up land facing Interstate 95 off and on ramps near its headquarters — a project Plank says was important because it affected visitors' first impressions of the firm.

"They've taken a lot of that on themselves," says Cole, who represented the neighborhood in the council. "They have invested very heavily in Baltimore and in their campus."

Under Armour, which moved to Tide Point in 1999, encourages its employees to live in the neighborhood and to walk, bike, or take a water taxi to its complex of brick buildings where Procter & Gamble once manufactured soap products.

But first, the firm needs to sell them on the city — a process that begins when recruits are picked up by Under Armour representatives at the airport and driven by SUV to the campus while being shown videos highlighting Baltimore and Under Armour.

"We tell our guests to put your cellphones away, this isn't the time for you to make calls," Plank says. "Then they come over here and they get dropped off and they see our campus and our innovation center and they see our gym and they watch people exercising outside. And then I want them to go stay at our hotel. I want to control the experience."

Plank frames his thoughts about the city's self-image not as a complaint but as a challenge to try to instill more pride into the city.

Under Armour's youthful, positive image, like a winning professional sports team, could alter how the city feels about itself, says Dae Hee Kwak, a University of Michigan assistant professor of sports management.

"No doubt about that," he says. "Pride plays a crucial role in building place identity. Surpassing Adidas in the sportswear brand in North America [this year] touts that pride."

Plank sometimes seems to be selling Baltimore almost as much as he is pitching apparel and shoes.

"I think this city can be great and I think I've got a company that can help," Plank says. "We're at this incredible moment in time where a $3 billion company has the ability to be a $10 billion company, and that isn't going to happen often. I think we have the bones to be an incredible city. Why not?"

jebarker@baltsun.com

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NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify a point made by Kevin Plank.

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