As the country digests one of the most controversial presidential elections of recent times and its surprising results, Under Armour’s chief said he is hopeful that a polarizing election year will ultimately yield unity across the nation.
In an exclusive interview with Footwear News, Plank shared his candid thoughts on the election results, the big issues facing the athletic industry and Under Armour’s go-forward strategy to drive innovation.
What has been your reaction to the results of the 2016 presidential election?
KP: “We knew we’d have a new president-elect today. I stayed up until 4 a.m. this morning watching the coverage myself. I think we all had the same reaction. I’d hate to own one of those poll businesses today. But I deal with these things a lot as a person [with a background] in sports. People always say, ‘Do you like your new coach?’ or ‘Do you think we should get rid of this coach?’ and so on. But this is going to be our president, and we all have to embrace it. I hope it becomes a unifying moment for America. I know it feels like this has been a divisive campaign, and that’s really unfortunate and that’s the saddest thing about it. But I hope it proves to be unifying.”
What do you think are the biggest issues facing the industry and the country at-large right now?
KP: “One of the things that we’ve made a big push for and that I’ve been incredibly vocal and hypercritical about is the lack of innovation in our industry. The fact that a shirt and a shoe are still made the exact same way that they were 100 years ago, I find embarrassing. I frankly look at the other two larger players than us –[since] becoming the No. 3 brand in the sporting brand in the world in the last two years — and I don’t think [we’ve] pressed hard enough to be innovative in the way that we make products and in the way that we have been chasing cheap labor. At first, footwear was being made in Europe, then it was being made in the Northeast up by Massachusetts, and then it was all moved over to Asia — and now we’re out of chasing places to find [optimal] labor prices. So we have to become better. [Also], if you look at the issues that we have in America — be it Ferguson, be it Baltimore or any other city — it’s one central issue: It’s jobs, jobs, jobs.
How is Under Armour working to effect change where these issues are concerned? And how can the government help?
KP: “We recently launched a program called the UA Lighthouse. It’s a 70,000 sq.-ft. design and innovation center in Baltimore, and the first purpose of it is innovation and driving the aesthetics, looks and styles and the things that will make us best-in class products. The second is process improvements — [looking at] all of the ways we can be efficient in our manufacturing facilities all over the world. Third is bringing what we call Local for Local. We’re going to have shoes rolling off the line in Baltimore within the next 12 to 18 months. I think there is a role for the government to help us bring these jobs back home and help us take time out of the supply chain and time out of our lead times.”
How is Under Armour getting involved on the job-creation front?
KP: “At any given time, Under Armour is employing anywhere around 350,000 people. If we’re going to grow our business 50 percent, I can tell you that today, it’s not pegged to have 175,000 of those jobs come back to America. I just wonder if there is a way that we can be more thoughtful, creative and innovative. What if we could bring 100 of those jobs or 500 or 1,000 or 10,000 here. We call [our initiative] Local for Local because the people of America want to buy products that are helping their local countrymen.”
What is your biggest takeaway from the 2016 presidential election?
KP: “I believe that the expectations that consumers have from consumer-facing brands is going to elevate. Simply driving shareholder value is only going to be part of the criteria for whether or not you’re a great company. You’re going to have to make your communities better. We have an amazing campus in Baltimore, and we’re hyper-focused through this new development that we have — building our corporate campus and things like the UA Lighthouse, driving innovation, making and building out Local for Local. We want to be the lighthouse of ‘How can we help reinvent some of our American cities — whether its Baltimore, Cleveland or Detroit?’ It’s an opportunity, and the challenge that we have as a part of running large, global businesses that understand local needs.”