Once upon a retail battlefield, where prospective consumers struggled to side with an aggressive advertiser out of Oregon or a newly formed German-based conglomerate, a young brand flourished out of the need to offer technologically-advanced products devoted to enhancing athletic performance. Aptly name Under Armour, this trend-driving company was spawned in 1996 when a young University of Maryland graduate toyed with the idea of under shirts made from moisture-wicking fabrics. Now an international purveyor of a wide range of sportswear and casual apparel with endorsees including Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Brandon Jennings, and a number of large Universities, the Baltimore-based publicly traded company doesn’t show any sign of comprised innovation. In its seventh consecutive year of revenue growth constantly outdoing analyst projections, Under Armour products are sold in more than 80 countries, firmly establishing a strong position among its giant industry counterparts. In an effort to gain some insight into the future of the brand, its thought on lifestyle collections, expansion outside of the United States and much more, we sat down with Under Armour’s COO, Kip Fulks.
Can you introduce yourself and your role at Under Armour?
I’m Kip Fulks, Chief Operating Officer at Under Armour. I oversee the design and development of all of our products, and the delivery of those products to the consumer. Under Armour’s commitment to innovation is key to our success, and the same innovative principles that apply to our product design also have implications for establishing and enhancing our delivery process. Every aspect of my role is an extension of the brand’s mission to make all athletes better.
Can you provide an overview of your company structure? Yearly revenues?
We have close to 5,000 employees worldwide. Our global headquarters are in Baltimore and the European headquarters are in Amsterdam. There are offices in Canada, Europe, Asia and Latin America. We have individual business units like marketing, design, innovation and sales, and overall we function like a sports team. We don’t work in silos. Cross communication is how we bridge from concept to development. The entrepreneurial attitude is part of our brand DNA so people are encouraged to take risks and make plays.
Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO, launched Under Armour in his grandmother’s basement 16 years ago. Last year, we passed $1.4 billion in yearly revenue. It’s a sign that athletes trust our brand, and it motivates us to continue moving forward.
How did you get involved with the brand?
I got involved because I’m an athlete. I played lacrosse at the University of Maryland and Kevin played on the football team. We had a mutual friend that introduced us. When he told me about this brand he launched I jumped at the chance to be part of a brand that was made by athletes, for athletes.
From the beginning stages to now, how have you seen the company’s atmosphere change?
Communication now takes on a whole new meaning and staying in touch with employees and what’s going on within our culture is a full-time job. One thing that has remained constant is the same innovative and energetic spirit that exists throughout the brand. We have the same authentic values and the same mission to make all athletes better; we’re just doing it on bigger stages and on a bigger scale.
As a brand deeply rooted in performance, why hasn’t there been a greater move towards lifestyle product?
It’s important that we don’t start to throw our logo on products in a blind effort to move towards the lifestyle space. Under Armour is a performance brand. Every time we entered into a new category we felt that we had a strong POV and products that offer a better technology than what was available. We look at the brand as a book. If we enter a new category it’s starting a new chapter in the book. It has to make sense with the chapter before and one that comes next. At the end of the day, performance is a lifestyle and we’ll continue to build around that ethos.
What is constantly in the back of the R&D team’s mind when seeking innovation between footwear and apparel?
More than what’s in the back of their mind, the team has to approach innovation based off of what they see, hear and experience from athletes. Their job is to innovate with the purpose to solve athletes’ problems. They are out training with them, watching them perform and understanding how technology can help them get better.
What represents the new frontier in sport performance apparel? What sort of performance metrics/injuries will new products address?
The merge of soft goods and hard goods is going to play a huge roll in the next 10 years. That will open up a lot of new paths for innovation. We’ll be looking at that very closely and continuing to identify new solutions to meet the needs of athletes.
We’ve seen Under Armour aim to crack less traditional sports like soccer including EPL sponsorships, how have your efforts been met?
We are a brand that was built on the field, and we only enter a new sport when we feel like we have authentic POV on how we can help athletes perform better in that sport. For that reason, our efforts have been met with strong enthusiasm. Our new partnership with Tottenham, will give us incredible exposure to a new, passionate fan base.
How is Under Armour’s perception outside of North America? As everybody aligns to make their splash in China, what is UA’s strategy?
We don’t shy away from our heritage when we introduce the brand to new markets. It’s important to educate new audiences that Under Armour created a category and innovation is part of our DNA. The first Under Armour shirt introduced the concept that apparel can elevate athletic performance beyond what was previously believed. It definitely changed the game. Our innovation story and the technology in our different products come through loud when you see us at retail outside of the U.S. Additional brand recognition is built through team and athlete sponsorships.
Last year, we opened our first store in Shanghai’s Grand Gateway Mall, and the response has been tremendous. It’s a space where we’re willing to push the envelope. We’re still in an education phase. The athlete in China might not know that products with HeatGear technology keep you cool in the heat and ColdGear technology keeps your body warm in the cold. The store changes color from red to blue to tell that story. The space is a great platform to interact with Chinese athletes and learn about their preferences and tastes.
Any last words you’d like to share about the business side of Under Armour?
We won’t lose sight of our mission. It’s about making athletes better. That will always drive our brand decisions. The right things are the hard things; the easy things are the wrong things. We play hard!