Simple T-shirt idea sparks $7.6b empire
When Kevin Plank finished his career as a college athlete he didn't set out to launch a global apparel powerhouse.
He just wanted to make a T-shirt that felt nice to exercise in.
"There's a great line that says whoever invents the next white T-shirt wins," he says from the business suite of Under Armour's swanky Australian headquarters.
"It's such a simple idea."
In an inner Sydney suburb a wide range of sports shoes line the walls. They narrate the brand's evolution, just as the jerseys of professional partnerships showcase its penetration into global leagues and franchises.
In his early 20s, the talented American footballer launched Under Armour in his grandmother's Washington D.C. basement.
Through his sporting endeavours in high school and then at the University of Maryland, Mr Plank had collected a rolodex filled with more than 50 NFL and Major League Baseball stars.
The key was capitalising on this exclusive network.
"I had this idea for this T-shirt," the company's founder and chief executive told news.com.au.
"As an athlete I never liked to wear my cotton T-shirt under my pads, and I always wondered why no one ever made an alternative to a short sleeve cotton T-shirt in the summer and a long sleeve cotton shirt in the winter."
To stay out of trouble while he resided in the district which houses Georgetown University in the late '90s, the graduate trawled through the local fabric store where his mum bought material for curtains, searching for the right synthetic material to make compression shorts and tops.
"I made my first six or seven prototypes and tried them on with my former teammates after I finished playing my senior year of college," Mr Plank said. "The feedback came back that they loved it."
The concept was taken to the garment district in New York where more than 500 T-shirts were custom-made. Mr Plank then sent three to each of his mates he played sport with who were plying their trade under bright lights in major leagues.
"I said if you like this, try it. And if you don't like it, please give one to the guy in the locker room next to you."
The pioneer of synthetic sportswear was born and Under Armour was "off and going".
In the first year, the company earned Mr Plank a modest revenue of $A25,000, $A160,000 in the second and $A585,000 after that.
"And then the business began to grow."
Within five years of its launch, it earned $A7.3 million and just under $A440 million in 2005 when the company went public.
"The next five years we grew from $US300 million ($A440 million) to nearly $US1 billion ($A1.5 billion) in 2010.
"And then in roughly five to six years we were a $US5 billion ($A7.3 billion) company."
Earlier this month, Under Armour pulled off its biggest scalp in the Australian market through signing AFL giant Essendon Bombers as an apparel partner for the next five years.
"I never began by thinking I'm going to grow my own global athletic brand, I began by saying I want to build the best T-shirt in the world for football players," Mr Plank said.
"And then I realised the baseball player in our team also wore it for lacrosse and the lacrosse players liked it. And then the girlfriends of the lacrosse players. I realised it's not just a football product, it's not just a men's product, it's an ethos, it's an idea and you can't kill an idea.
"Nobody was making anything like we did until the big ones started knocking off what we were doing in 2002-2003, and by that time we were already launched and had developed the basis of making performance apparel known as Under Armour."
Even if you don't recognise the name, the activewear parading the streets and the runners pounding the suburban pavements are adorned in the brand's legacy.
Mr Plank told news.com.au "without question" Under Armour pioneered the synthetic sportswear phenomenon ubiquitous in urban culture.
"We were the first … the industry didn't exist," he said.
"Innovation was effectively limited to equipment or footwear at best and apparel was always meant to be the colour of the kit or the jersey or the team that you're representing.
"The innovation that goes into the kit that we provide for any sport is extraordinary - before Under Armour it was a double knit cotton shirt that you hoped wouldn't rip versus something that would have flexibility and enhancement or helps with recovery or has minerals inside the fibre that actually helps repair muscles actively while athletes are training.
"The amount of innovation that has come into focus with apparel, is something that I really believe Under Armour pioneered and we can be incredibly proud of."