Photographer: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg

Under Armour Braces for First Loss as Scrutiny of CEO Mounts

  • Analysts expect athletic brand to post loss of 4 cents a share
  • Plank’s Trump comment sparked backlash by consumers, endorsers

Under Armour Inc. is poised to report its first quarterly loss since going public in 2005, a setback for a high-flying growth company that’s already had a tumultuous start to the year.

The sports-apparel maker in January cut its growth forecast, sending the stock plummeting. Soon after, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Plank’s favorable comments about President Donald Trump sparked a consumer backlash. Plank, who founded the company, also raised eyebrows this month when a proxy filing showed that businesses he controls received $73 million in payments from Under Armour.

“Under Armour has gone from being an incredibly loved stock to now having a lot of concern around it,” said Simeon Siegel, an analyst at Instinet LLC. Negative sentiment on Wall Street, he said, “has hit a fever pitch.”

On Thursday, the athletic brand will probably post a loss of about 4 cents a share in the first quarter, according to the average of analysts’ estimates. Revenue projections call for 5.9 percent growth to $1.11 billion. That would mark the company’s first dip below double-digit gains since the height of the recession in 2009.

Under Armour’s prospects have done an about-face as it struggles to recapture the rapid growth that saw revenue double about every three years. Plank has blamed the company’s woes on overall retail weakness and store closings, including the liquidation of key customer Sports Authority. The result has been a glut of merchandise, meaning profit margins took a hit as discounting was needed to clear it. In January, the company lowered its forecast of 2017 revenue growth to as much as 12 percent from the low-20-percent range.

Under Armour shares have fallen 33 percent this year after dropping 30 percent in 2016. They slid 0.5 percent to $19.44 at 9:35 a.m. in New York on Wednesday, with its price trading at about half the level of seven months ago.

Trump Flap

Plank has also said that the brand’s styles need to be more fashionable. The “athleisure” trend that has seen people wearing workout gear in more everyday situations has created new competition for Under Armour, from upstarts to established brands like Old Navy.

The 44-year-old CEO has had a recent knack for controversy. In February, he said in an otherwise benign interview on CNBC that Trump’s support of U.S. business was a “real asset” for the country. That came after he met the president with a group of CEOs and then was named to a White House manufacturing jobs initiative. Being seen as a supporter of the president created a backlash from shoppers and criticism from the brand’s top paid endorsers, including NBA superstar Steph Curry and ballet dancer Misty Copeland.

The episode led Sam Poser, an analyst at Susquehanna International Group, to question Under Armour’s ability to build a cool urban lifestyle brand. He cut his stock-price target nearly in half to $14. In a phone interview Monday, Poser said that while the Trump incident was a negative for Under Armour, the company faces a bigger challenge in appealing to shoppers’ fashion sense.

If “they come out with a new moisture-wicking technology, but the shirts still look very similar to the one you already own, there’s no urgency to go ‘Oh, I gotta go try this new technology,”’ he said.

Share Scrutiny

Whether Under Armour can make a comeback will depend in large part on Plank, who still controls the company through his majority ownership of Class B shares. The Class A shares investors can buy have only one-tenth the voting power of Class B shares. Most recently, the company in 2015 issued Class C shares that had no voting rights. That move drew some criticism of Plank, who was also scrutinized this month when the annual proxy filing cited by the Wall Street Journal revealed his private investment firm received more than $73 million in business from Under Armour in 2016.

Under Armour said in a statement Tuesday that Plank never made money on the transaction, which it said was a land sale. “Moreover, this purchase is going to enable the company to develop a headquarters campus that can support the company’s long-term growth plans,” Under Armour said.

Still, the biggest question facing Under Armour is if it can return to its high-growth days, Siegel said. 

“If not, it’s a different type of company,” he said. “And it’s not to say it’s not still a loved brand, but it’s a loved brand at a different level on the podium.”

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