Under Armor's Founder, Kevin Plank

A few weeks later, I pull into Under Armour headquarters on a gray-skied morning after a heavy rain. The first thing I see is a group of employees working out: six women and four men, all young and fit and good-looking, doing push-ups on mats in a concrete courtyard. Every company is a church of itself, but Under Armour more than most; here, the active lifestyle is king, and employees are encouraged to live the brand. In the company cafeteria, the Humble & Hungry, named after Plank's standard email sign-off, the food is color-coded according to healthiness – "Go" foods, "Slow" foods, and "Whoa" foods ("Stop! Think twice about these foods. Consume on your day off!"). The average age of employees is 31. "It is a little bit of a mini Melrose Place," Plank tells me, "in a good, healthy way."

Plank's office has white-brick walls and windows that look out onto Baltimore Harbor. He pokes his head out the window and wonders aloud if the city is going to send one of its trash-skimming boats around to clean up debris from the harbor, which it often does when it rains. Today he's wearing a white polo, jeans, and Under Armour sneakers. His belt buckle is in the shape of the Under Armour logo: a squat, horizontally stretched U looming above an A, like a lifter at the gym spotting his bro. An oversize map of the world dominates the wall behind his desk, and opposite the windows, a ceiling-high whiteboard is scribbled with inspirational sayings: "Storm the beaches and improvise!"; "I am the opposite of a moderate man." Plank takes a seat and tells me he recently delivered a graduation speech at a Baltimore high school, Paul Laurence Dunbar, to which the company has given tens of thousands in charitable donations. "The biggest message to anybody out there?" he says. "Imagine this: This Maryland football player can build a billion-dollar company. You know, why can't you? What's your excuse?

"I mean, if you look at the White House," Plank continues, "you gotta have gone to Harvard or Yale" to be president. "But for the rest of us, it's nice to know that you can go to a state school and still have a chance." His eyes flash. "Obama went to Harvard. Clinton went to Yale. Bush went to Yale. Where does the rest of the world come from? There's something to it," he says of his state school experience, "coming through that big system, that big funnel, that big machine, having not only survived but thrived in a lot of senses."

Plank grew up in Kensington, Maryland, his father a real estate developer, his mother the town's longtime mayor. He was the youngest of five brothers. "It's the dog that's born at the end of the litter that's gotta fight for everything," says Kip Fulks, a collegiate lacrosse player who was Plank's first business partner and is now Under Armour's COO. One of Plank's Little League football teammates, Mark Mason, recalls that young Plank was "crazy." Says Mason, "The first time I ever met him, at age 10, I was actually intimidated by him. We had these trees you had to run through. He went through yelling the whole entire time."

As a sophomore in high school, Plank got kicked out of a private Jesuit prep school for poor grades. He transferred to Catholic school, where the kids had to wear uniforms, perform drills, and submit to inspections. "A pretty good wake-up call," Plank says. "I realized what an amazing opportunity I had. I was coming from a good neighborhood, good parents, good older brothers. I didn't really have an excuse." After graduating, he spent a year at another military school, playing football and trying to get noticed by Division I schools. None seemed interested. So he went to the University of Maryland, unrecruited, and walked onto the team. Eventually he became special-teams captain, flinging himself at the other team's blockers, absorbing abuse. "He would run into a brick wall," says Mason, who played with Plank at Maryland. "And if the coach told him to hit a brick wall and get through it, he'd find a way to get through it."

Plank also found a way to make money. Every February, around Valentine's Day, he sold roses. Some of the guys on the football team delivered flowers for him, and so did his girlfriend at the time, Desiree Jacqueline Guerzon, who later became his wife.

What happened next has basically become part of American business lore, a Horatio Alger story that's been incorporated by Plank into the company's very branding. Sick of sweating through his cotton shirts during practices, Plank bought some synthetic fabric used in women's lingerie and had a tailor make a series of prototype shirts that would fit tight against the skin and wick away sweat. Compression shirts, he called them. The first shirt sucked. The second one sucked a little less. The seventh iteration was kind of nice. Not that it was some amazing technical achievement. Plank didn't have a patent on synthetic fibers or anything like that. But the shirt was just different enough from what was out there to give him a fingerhold on a mountain built by giants like Nike, Reebok, and Adidas. You reached into your dresser full of 20 or 30 cotton shirts and here was something slick and sleek and synthetic.

With the help of Fulks, Plank started trying to get athletes to wear his stuff. For the most part, the pros he approached weren't interested, so he attacked at the collegiate level instead, where kids were open to trying new things. While Nike was driving truckfuls of cash into the homes of superstars, Plank was sweet-talking equipment managers in college locker rooms.

It was touch and go for a while in the late Nineties. Plank drove a '94 Bronco with 250,000 miles and a cracked windshield. One day he went to the bank, checked his account, and saw that he had only $1,500 left. He'd written more than $5,000 in checks and couldn't cover them. So he cleared out all his cash except for $100 and drove to Atlantic City to try to make some money playing blackjack. He was up $5,000 at one point, then decided to go for $10,000 – and lost it all.

"It's over," he thought. "You blew it." He started to cry. On the way back to Maryland, he realized he couldn't pay for the toll.

The next day, Plank stopped by his mother's house to get something to eat. He used to keep a P.O. box there. He opened it, and inside was a check for $4,200 from Georgia Tech. "That was the last time I doubted the company," Plank says. "Wipe the tears away, stand up, be a man, run your business, find a way," he says sternly. "I wouldn't call it a cry, by the way. I'd call it a whimper."

The company grew quickly. In 1998, Plank moved Under Armour to a warehouse on Sharp Street in Baltimore. Soon afterward, another company in the athletic-apparel business invited Plank and Fulks to their office to talk about a possible partnership. During the discussion, one of the guys from the other company said, "Maybe we should just buy you guys." According to Fulks, "Kevin looked at the guy and said, 'No problem. Five billion and I'm yours.' And the guy laughed. And Kevin looked at him seriously and said, 'No, you raise the money and I'll sell it.'" Fulks adds, "Those people are no longer around."

Plank had another chance to sell the company several years later, when he started talking to Wall Street about taking Under Armour public. By now, youth and college teams and even some pros were wearing his clothes. The company's sales had grown exponentially – from $5 million to $300 million in five years – as the company expanded into women's wear and children's clothing and had begun operating abroad. But more important, Under Armour had crossed that bright metaphysical border from "product" to "brand." A product is just a thing you sell. But a brand is an idea. A brand is a chance to mint money: Under Armour backpacks, Under Armour flip-flops, Under Armour bottled water.

In 2005, on the day before the initial public offering, Plank got a cash offer for the company, according to Rob Sweeney, head of retail investment banking at Goldman Sachs, who led the IPO. The offer was around $750 million and gave Plank a chance to walk away, at age 33, with $500 million. He turned it down.

On its first day of trading, Under Armour's stock rose 94 percent. The IPO made his family rich: his wife; his brother Scott, who owned 5 percent of the company's shares until 2010 but later sold some of them and retired. Since the IPO, Under Armour has grown an average of 31 percent every year, enough to make Plank a billionaire.

"I think he wants to be bigger than Nike," says Sweeney. "I think he wants to be a $75 billion company."