Editor's note: The following is part of Retail Dive's "$500 million question" series, which asks executives of retail companies of all sizes and stripes how they would invest half a billion dollars in "found money" toward their operation.
Under Armour essentially declared victory in a years-long turnaround effort last fall. With revenue up, and profits way up, CEO Patrik Frisk said then that the athletic brand was done with "the majority of our transformational work."
The company has exited thousands of wholesale partnerships, sold its MyFitnessPal diet and fitness tracking platform, pulled back on discounting, and generally tried to focus its brand and market position.
Under Armour has also weathered one of the most difficult and dynamic supply chain environments in modern history, with COVID-19 disrupting factories and ports around the world, creating massive bottlenecks, costs and general headaches for brands and retailers of all sorts.
As it looks to build on its recent performance and make durable operational change, we asked the company's chief operating officer, Colin Browne, the $500 million question: How would you invest half a billion dollars in free money — should it drop out of the sky and onto your books — to improve your business and operations?
Browne's answer related not only to the sustainability of Under Armour's turnaround but that of its industry as a whole.
Editor's note: Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Colin Browne, Under Armour COO: I don't have to hesitate on that one. I would invest it in the work we're doing around circularity. I think it is so fundamental to our future — not just Under Armour's future, but the future of the planet — that we address these issues. And we have a number of programs in flight which we're incredibly excited about and we'll be able to talk more about that next year. But the idea of being able to plow more dollars into executing against those — which we're already putting a few dollars against it — but to ramp those up even more I think would be incredibly powerful. And if you let me know where I can get that $500 million, that would be great.
We as an industry have to work through how to [create] much more of a closed cycle. And that's a really big question. There's not a silver bullet that's going to solve all the world's problems. It will require a coordinated approach across the entire enterprise in order to execute at that kind of level. We have to figure out how we design into it, how we sell into it, how do we actually have product returns, how do we bring [materials] back into the supply chain. It's a big, hairy, complicated problem, which I'm confident we'll solve.
Specifically, one part that hasn't been built out yet is, how do you actually physically return product? And how does that product physically get back into the supply chain? We're at a point now where many of the things that we at Under Armour and many people in the industry are doing on the product view are actually ensuring we're producing more sustainable products and products that can be brought into a circular economy. But you know, if that circle isn't complete, it's just going to kind of stop dead.
Part of it is building out that part of the infrastructure. Europe is further ahead than the U.S., to be frank. We have lots of conversations with Europe with regards to some of the things that are happening there. But to me, that's the part where there's still a large disconnect that needs to kind of be put together to work out how do you close that circle.
Ultimately, you will need the reuse of materials. Of course, you can do some resale, you can do other things. But I think ultimately, fashion dictates that we will ... kind of always have new product, or a different cut, or a different color, or a different style. And so I think that reuse will only go so far.
The real opportunity is in how are we actually able to take product, break it down into its constituent parts, and then use it again to produce a new product. And then do it again, and do it again, and do it again, to the point where ultimately, we have a limited amount of raw material that we're all gifted at birth and that's what we've got to live with for the next three score years and ten. I'm exaggerating, but that's the principle.
One of our core values is to act sustainably. So it is something that we put front and center of what we do. We've been quite low key about a lot of what we do just because we want to ensure that when we do kind of come out with the stuff we're doing, it has real depth and value to it. And we're continuing to work through that. We are focused on producing performance products that help athletes perform better, and that "better" should potentially also include sustainability and circularity. And that's something which is very much in our DNA, and something that we're doubling down on.
There are pockets of innovation. There are things happening at an industry level, I hasten to add, because this is an industry problem. As I said, it's not just an Under Armour problem. Part of it now, is how do we join those dots? And how do we expand those kind of areas to start to bridge many of those gaps that exist within the current circular model?
Something which we need to think more about is how do we consistently collect product as opposed to just dump it in a landfill? How do we actually build that model? And then how do we collect it, sort it, and then kind of start to steer it towards the technologies that are still very nascent with regards to how then it gets broken down and used again, into new product.
So that's the bit of the chain, I think, from the point of view of actually how your product is made and can we see how to move those things forward. And then how do we actually ensure that we're producing in a much more sustainable way? We've got a lot of programs in place to help optimize that, again, as does the industry.
The idea of more nearshoring is something that I think will play a part in this, because you're not necessarily going to want to be taking T-shirts in North America and shipping them back to China to have them broken down into the raw materials and reconstituted into fabrics that are then shipped to Latin America to stitch new T-shirts that has to be delivered to a customer in Europe. That's not going to work. We have to think more holistically about how that whole thing works.
That's why I genuinely believe supply chain is going to be the differentiator in this decade, because solving those big hairy problems we are going to have to solve is really what supply chain does.
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