Kevin Plank may have sold the first Under Armour shirts from the back of his car, but as his reach has grown, so too have his wheels: These days, he jets around the world, recently to five Asian cities in six days, but managed to get back home to Baltimore to watch a member of his celebrity-filled stable of athletes play in a game.
That would be his 9-year-old son, James, playing in a Little League game in Baltimore County. Like any sideline dad, Plank showed off a few photos on his cellphone, scenes from a spring evening more Norman Rockwell than Under Armour, whose thumping ads feature glaring athletes seemingly in training not for a mere game but a coming apocalypse.
"Here's a good one," Plank says, narrating the pictures as he flips through them a few days later. "Here's him running. … Here's my boy playing. … And then all of a sudden, I noticed that his laces were too long.
"So I took a picture," Plank says, coming to a close-up of his son's black cleats, with, indeed, excess lace-age tied in an oversized loop. "And I emailed that to our team and said: Why are the laces long? Then I said: Why is the logo a black logo? It should be a white logo on the shoe."
At 40, Plank may be the CEO atop a sprawling, billion-dollar, 6,000-employee enterprise, but he still sweats the details. There just are more of them now, many more than in 1996 when the just-graduated University of Maryland football player was developing a new kind of athletic undergarment from the basement of his grandmother's townhouse.
There is Under Armour's ever-expanding product line, seen on the backs and feet of superstar endorsers — such as Michael Phelps and Tom Brady — and the rest of us, trying to at least look the part of a high-performance athlete.
And there is, particularly this time of year, Sagamore Farm, the historic Baltimore County estate that he bought five years ago with the express purpose of breeding and raising a Triple Crown winner — and which in true Plank style has managed to spawn yet another venture, the return of Maryland rye whiskey, which will be distilled using the spring-fed water of the farm's creeks.
There's not much that naturally connects athletic gear to thoroughbred horses to rye whiskey, except the restless entrepreneurial mind of Plank. There is something of the showman, or perhaps circus ringmaster, in Plank, someone who admittedly sells not just product but story.
And for Plank, it is a story inextricable from its setting.
Baltimore and its blue-collar ethos, Maryland and its horse racing tradition, College Park and the Terps teams to which he is a generous donor — they ground and inspire him. Even now, or perhaps especially now, that his focus is on expanding Under Armour's international market.
"I'm from Maryland," he remembers repeating to someone he met at a recent dinner in New York, a man who couldn't understand why he didn't move to a state with a more business-friendly tax structure. "I can't move, because I'm from Maryland.
"This is our town. If we don't stay and fight for our town, who's going to stay and fight for it?" Plank said.
Central to his personality, say those who know him, are his competitiveness and a need to feel like the underdog up against the bigger guys (read: Nike), making it no surprise that he eventually found his way to a city in which that is something of a civic subtext.
"What he may have lacked in size and speed," said Tom Mullikin, a high school friend and football teammate, "he made up with determination and fortitude."
Mullikin, who now manages Sagamore Farm, said Plank was always an entrepreneur, remembering how he would get his friends to help him with a rose-delivery service he ran on Valentine's Day. Among those who would run roses for Plank were his future wife, Desiree Jacqueline "D.J." Guerzon.
"I was his biggest upseller," D.J. Plank said. "'You can get them boxed, but for another $10, I can stick them in a vase, and it'll really show you care.'"
They met in high school, when each was dating a friend of the other. They ran into each other as students in College Park, where Kevin Plank walked on to the football team, and happily discovered those high school romances had ended.
After dating off and on for the next 10 years, they married in 2003. A neonatal nurse, she gave up the demanding job when they started a family. In addition to James, the Planks have a 6-year-old daughter, Katherine.
Raised in the Washington suburb of Kensington, Plank moved to his late grandmother's Georgetown townhouse after college but set up shop in Baltimore in 1998. After outgrowing a couple of other buildings, Plank moved Under Armour's headquarters to its current location in Tide Point, the complex of brick buildings where Procter & Gamble once manufactured its various soap products.