The Secret History of Under Armour in Moundsville

The unknown Moundsville, WV origins of Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic-wear $10 billion behemoth, highlight the course of American business over the last half-century.

As we document in Moundsville (PBS), what’s left of manufacturing Moundsville is a small handful of companies like Shutler Cabinets, which makes cabinets with robots and sophisticated engineering software.

It used to be otherwise. In the decades before and after World War Two, the Ohio Valley, like Manchester in the 1890s and Guangzhou in the 2010s, roared with factories making steel, aluminum and glass, and shoes and shirts, and toys and cigars. Even airplanes.

There were a few textile makers in town, Moundsville historian Gary Rider told me. “One company used prison labor, paying people pennies, until a law shut that down.” Moundsville was never a textile town, but the economy was big enough that there was always some sort of apparel manufacturing around.

One was a company across the river, in Bellaire, OH, called AAA in the USA. In the mid-1990s, a young entrepreneur named Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s founder, commissioned AAA in the USA to make the first versions of his light-fibered sports gear. This was how American business used to operate: If you were an entrepreneur in a big city with a design idea, you outsourced it to a manufacturing zone– like the Ohio Valley. As a 2003 story in the Baltimore Business Journal relates: “There — in a red, white and blue warehouse along the Ohio River where Plank would model his slick shirts that pull sweat away from an athlete’s body… — Under Armour Performance Apparel was born.”

After AAA in the USA closed in 1997, Ella Mae Holmes, who became a senior executive at Under Armour, kept sewing Under Armour gear, and storing the clothes in a different building nearby — in Moundsville. That made sense. She had access to a warehouse and the machines needed to make clothes. (Holmes did not reply to a request for comment.)

Plank would leave Baltimore at 4 a.m., arrive in Moundsville around 8 a.m., and work with Holmes and her boyfriend, Leo Weber, throughout the day. At 8 p.m., Plank would take his shipment to the local FedEx office and drive back to Baltimore, usually arriving by 2 a.m. “Finally, I took them out to dinner at Red Lobster, sat them down and I was like, ‘Guys, I know you love West Virginia. But I can’t make this four-hour drive anymore. You guys have to move to Baltimore,’ ” recalls Plank.

And so another manufacturer — and people, jobs and capitals — departed. In order to compete on cost with Nike and other American apparel companies, Under Armour had to imitate their business practices: Design flashy gear in the USA, make it in countries like China, Vietnam and Honduras, then ship is back to the U.S. to sell with the help of celebrity endorsements and big-dollar ad contracts, via big retailers like Target or WalMart, or online sellers like Amazon.

That business strategy, and our choices as consumers to shop for the bargains it offers, has built the modern America of malls and fulfillment centers, and left a depleted Ohio Valley.

Under Armour has struggled in recent years because of corporate mismanagement and the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s still a heavyweight in American business, with annual revenues of over $5 billion, and over 15,000 employees.

And the company’s official history omits its Ohio Valley origins. Here’s how it frames those early days: In 1998, its website says, “Under Armour moved operations from a rowhouse in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, which belonged to Kevin’s grandmother, to an all-new headquarters and warehouse in Baltimore, MD, the city it has called home ever since.” No mention of Moundsville. Under Armour did not return a request for comment.

To be sure, Under Armour, which has made recent efforts to manufacture in the U.S., was following a trend. The U.S. imported $68.6 billion of apparel in 2020, up from $22.9 billion in 1990, turning out the lights on factories in places like Moundsville and the Ohio Valley. There were other reasons. Private equity bought factories and laid off workers and squeezed out assets to reap profits. People stopped buying specific products those factories made. Companies fled to states with less legal protection for unions.

The tragedy, the big picture, is that American business shifted predominantly to cities and coasts, taking labor and markets with them. Suddenly, it made no sense at all to build a manufacturing plant in Moundsville. Dig into any American manufacturing company, and add some trade and economic data, and you can see this shift happening.

Could it all come back? Yes, but it will be different. Communities need to attract families seeking lower cost of living and remote workers. Employment will be diversified. Manufacturing will be in small shops with 10-15 employees that rely on robots. It is possible. The Ohio Valley is still a nice place to live.

John W. Miller

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