Kevin Plank on His Changing Role at Under Armour
Kevin Plank is returning to his roots at Under Armour. Plank, who served as chief executive since founding the apparel company in 1996, officially stepped down as CEO on January 1. Patrik Frisk, previously the company’s president and chief operating officer, succeeded Plank as CEO.
This move is not what it looks like on the surface. Plank is neither leaving the company he built nor is he ceding control over it. He is not transitioning into retirement. Indeed, Plank will continue to have a strong voice in determining the direction that Under Armour takes in 2020 and beyond.
Plank will now function as executive chairman of the board of directors, while Frisk will oversee the running of day-to-day operations. The new CEO will continue to report to the old CEO. Plank still controls 65 percent of the company’s voting shares and ultimately will have the final say in all critical decisions.
Frisk’s transition to CEO has been in the works since he joined Under Armour less than three years ago. He has worked with the Baltimore-based sportswear manufacturer since 2017 and brings three decades of experience in the retail industry to the table.
Making this move opens a door for Plank to take on a more active role in marketing and product development within his company. He will function as a new “brand chief” for Under Armour. Plank’s transition to a different role is an unexpected move to outside observers. On the other hand, it is not unprecedented for a founder’s role to change and evolve as their company grows.
Now Plank has opened an avenue to get back to his creative roots within the company he founded. Doing the same thing while functioning as a CEO over an international company that brings in more than $5 billion annual sales is a complicated task.
Working as a CEO eats up large blocks of time, making it difficult to also take on more creative hands-on responsibilities. Functioning effectively as a CEO requires delegating tasks to other talented leaders and managers, as well as building the necessary corporate infrastructure to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly. These duties effectively sideline a founder who takes on a CEO role from rolling up their sleeves and carving out an active role in creating and developing the types of products that facilitated their company’s growth in the first place.
Kevin Plank ultimately opted for making a change in title and responsibilities to give his company a creative jolt. Under Armour has faced sales declines in North America in recent years, inspiring the company to come up with creative solutions to bolster those numbers in a healthy direction again. By allowing Plank to do more of the duties he assumed while leading Under Armour through its early growth stage, the goal is to restore that early spark in the company’s largest market.
Frisk seems well prepared for the task of assuming the CEO position from Plank. He reorganized management structure, cleaned up the company’s supply chain, and put in place a new process for developing and bringing products to market during his term as COO.
For Plank, taking on a different role within the company he founded can also double as a fresh start. Plank told the Baltimore Business Journal that being executive chairman and brand chief will allow him to develop a sharper vision for his company while allowing others to handle the day-to-day details of running Under Armour.
“This is simply just an evolution,” Plank said to the Baltimore Business Journal shortly after announcing the move.
Under Armour possesses more than enough brand power to climb upward in 2020 with the right moves and the right vision. In March 2019, the company opened its first brand store in India. Then, just two months later, Under Armour opened a 1.3 million-square-foot distribution warehouse in Sparrows Point, Maryland.
The brand also enjoyed high visibility in the collegiate athletic realm during the 2018–19 season. Two universities who use apparel and gear from the company — Auburn and Texas Tech — reached the 2019 NCAA Final Four in Division I men’s basketball. A full 25 percent of the 68-team field ended up being composed of schools sponsored by Under Armour.
A partnership with Virgin Atlantic, announced in January 2019, offered another major highlight. It designated Under Armour as the official provider of footwear and apparel for future commercial space travelers with Virgin Atlantic. In October, the two companies jointly unveiled a first look at a new design for spacesuits that will be worn by these travelers.
This partnership offers a model for the sort of forward-looking marketing and product development that Plank wants to create in his new role. He described Under Armour as his “heart and full-time job” in a letter to employees in which he formally announced his decision to step down as CEO. Plank further described his new role as entailing a daily focus on “product elevation and amplifying our brand story” in that same letter.
Developing products and focusing on the long-term vision of the company allow Plank to play to his strengths as an innovator. Indeed, his new role will allow him to innovate at a more direct grassroots level, while he develops the next generation of sports gear and apparel from Under Armour. Plank will hop back into the product trenches in an effort to better help his company face whatever challenges lie ahead.