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How Kevin Plank’s Under Armour took on Nike

Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career by Daniel Roberts and Fortune contributors.

Time Home Entertainment Inc.

Reprinted with permission of Time Home Entertainment Inc. Excerpted from Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career by Daniel Roberts and Fortune contributors. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

When Kevin Plank talks about Nike, the biggest sports apparel brand in the world, he's respectful, yet pugnacious. "We have great respect for them across the board," he says. "But … we really don't like them."

He has to think that way – it's been his attitude since day one, back in 1996, when Plank set his sights on the sports-apparel industry's most formidable giant and began to sell a form-fitting, sweat-wicking football undershirt at the University of Maryland. He was only 23 then, but already had business experience on a smaller scale. As an enterprising kid growing up in suburban Maryland, Plank had mowed lawns in his neighborhood for pocket money. Then, when he was an underclassman at Maryland, he came up with Cupid's Valentine, a Valentine's Day rose-delivery service. (His girlfriend, D.J. Guerzon, now his wife, worked with him on it.) That simple on-campus idea brought him nearly $17,000, which he later put to good use in co-founding his company Under Armour.

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The transition from roses to T-shirts came from his time on the University of Maryland football field: Plank, who had walked onto Maryland's football squad as a special-teams player, again and again lamented the heavy, sweat-soaked cotton undershirt he and his teammates would peel off in the locker room after practice. He wished for something cooler and lighter to wear under all those pads. At the time, Plank was in his fifth year at Maryland – still a student but with only a couple of classes to worry about.

Plank started visiting local clothiers and tailors in the area and took some road trips to New York City to visit the Garment District as well. He was researching the right synthetic fabric. He soon settled on a favourite (95 per cent polyester, 5 per cent elastane) and ran with it, producing a simple, stretchy T-shirt in bulk.

How Plank began distributing the shirts is a testament to networking. After he graduated from St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C., he had tacked on a post-grad year at Fork Union Military Academy. From his time at those football factories, plus playing at Maryland, Plank had access to a football fraternity – more than 40 friends, he estimates. It was those friendships that helped Plank think he had a shot at entering a sports-apparel world dominated by Nike.

When asked today about the perceived rivalry between that company and his, Plank is cagey. "People like to pit it as a Cain vs. Abel thing," he says. "It's not about that." Yet in a world where brand image is so important, especially in the fiercely competitive sports-apparel market, many people who wear Under Armour feel a connection with the brand precisely because of its underdog appeal. It is still a challenger. Co-founder Kip Fulks, now the company's COO, is more direct about the rivalry. When he and Plank were first trying to figure out ways to sell the shirts, Fulks recalls, "We said, 'Oh, yeah, we're going to take on Nike,' and meanwhile we literally had shirts in cardboard boxes that were moldy on the bottom."

The shirts didn't stay in cardboard boxes long. Soon Plank and Fulks were calling up friends and former teammates to offer them a shirt. That tactic worked again and again as players discovered how much more comfortable Plank's shirt was compared with the plain-cotton tee they had been used to wearing.

In between working the phones, he would also put stacks of shirts in the trunk of his car and drive around to campuses of notable college football teams. Fulks was doing the same on a smaller scale, aiming at lacrosse players. On his visits Plank targeted equipment managers. Since he had been on a college team himself, he knew the power that equipment managers held in determining what players wore. He also knew his product was strong and marketable.

Under Armour's first big coup was a sizable order from Georgia Tech. When its equipment manager called to order 350 shirts, Plank was delighted. Other equipment managers took notice, and soon the pro teams came calling. …

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Of course, Plank's success did not come solely from being friendly with a bunch of football players, nor did it come from charming the equipment managers. It also took bold leadership and the ample confidence – cockiness, even – that he has had since he was little. Growing up with four older brothers made him scrappy and accustomed to standing up for himself.

Plank had originally gone to high school at Georgetown Prep, but he failed classes and got kicked out for fighting. Nearby St. John's College High School accepted him, thanks to his ability to play football, and once there, he cleaned up his act. Yet his pugnacious attitude stuck with him all through college (you need a certain amount of self-assuredness to walk onto a Division I football squad), and he eventually applied it to his company. He soldiered through the uncertain early months because he was determined, but also because, if he were to fail, he had the certainty he'd bounce back: "I always had confidence in myself that if it didn't work for some reason, I'd be able to make it back and do something else."

Of course, he didn't need to do something else. Today his company does $1.84-billion in sales per year, a legitimate competitor to Nike's $6.5-billion. As something of a David, it also still enjoys a bit of an underground appeal over Nike, the Goliath. And besides, it needs Nike. "Luke Skywalker was a lot cooler because of Darth Vader," says Plank, whose success can be largely attributed to his fierce belief in entrepreneurship. "There are more great ideas sitting right now in someone's garage or basement, and people are like, 'Well, my wife's pregnant, not a good time, can't do it, not at this moment,'" he says. "We need to encourage that adventure spirit again."

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