Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank Builds Muscle With Wearables

Late last week, on the eve of the Super Bowl, I interviewed Kevin Plank, CEO of apparel and footwear maker Under Armour (UA). We met on the fourth floor of the flagship Macy’s store on Union Square in San Francisco in a space Fortune’s sister publication Sports Illustrated converted from the women’s dresses department into an ad hoc TV studio. It was a tiny slice of the Super Bowl extravaganza that upended the Bay Area.

I wrote a bit about Plank and his digital strategy last month, and hearing about it directly from Plank was fascinating. Here’s a genuine innovator who disliked sweaty cotton tee shirts when he played college football. Now he’s trying to innovate again by embracing fitness technology that has hobbled his competitors, including Nike (NKE).

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Plank is a poster child for old-line companies aggressively trying to be digital. Three things stand out.

  1. I asked Plank if it was possible that he’s too early, especially with the $400 HealthBox product that combines a scale, a fitness tracker, and a heart-rate monitor. Unsurprisingly, the man who has spent nearly $700 million on technology acquisitions—and partnered with HTC on the HealthBox—believes Under Armour’s timing is perfect. Given the size of the investment and audacity of the strategy, it won’t take long to know if he’s right.
  2. Plank captured the spirit of not waiting to be disrupted with this line, “What are we gonna do if Apple decides they’re going to make a shirt?” That’s unlikely, but his mentality is spot on.
  3. Under Armour, at a fraction of Nike’s size, has the advantage of being a big small company or a small big company, depending on what suits it best. It is big enough to pay top dollar for top athlete endorsements but small enough to say its burgeoning business in China is unaffected by the slowdown there. That won’t last forever, but it’s a good place to be.
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