Can a hospitality bigwig bring new life to Under Armour?

Discussion
Stephanie Linnartz, Under Armour’s new President and CEO – Photo: Under Armour
Jan 03, 2023

In a surprise move, Under Armour last week named Stephanie Linnartz, the current president of Marriott International, as its third CEO.

Ms. Linnartz, who has been with Marriott since 1997 and president since 2021, takes over on February 27, 2023. Colin Browne, interim CEO, will return to the COO role.

She replaces Patrik Frisk, who stepped down in June. Mr. Frisk earned credit for executing a multi-year restructuring that culled unprofitable divisions, endorsements and distribution while speeding up its go-to-market approach. Kevin Plank, founder and former long-time CEO of Under Armour, has indicated he’s now looking for the brand to “pivot to offense.”

Ms. Linnartz comes from a much larger organization (more than $20 billion in annual revenue versus about $5.9 billion for Under Armour) with global reach. A female-led management team could better guide Under Armour’s approach to reaching women, an underpenetrated opportunity for most major sports brands outside of Lululemon.

Under Armour is also seeking to be a bigger player in fashion and lifestyle apparel, areas where Nike and Adidas make a significant amount of their sales. Under Armour has refocused on its roots in performance products in recent years.

The younger demographic that first ignited the brand’s success will also have to be won back. In Piper Sandler’s recent fall “Taking Stock With Teens” survey, Under Armour dropped out of the top 10 most popular brands for teenagers.

Mr. Plank, who is executive chairman, told CNBC that Under Armour is prioritizing “digitization, product and brand” following five years of restructuring.

According to Under Armour’s statement, Ms. Linnartz was “responsible for leading Marriott’s multibillion-dollar digital transformation” and helping grow its loyalty program, Bonvoy, to 173 million members. She has also developed multi-year partnerships with the NFL, the NCAA and the Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team.

One challenge could be working in sync with Mr. Plank. He told CNBC, “She and I will be partners. We’re not hiding from that.”

Ms. Linnartz has also been on Home Depot’s board since 2018 but doesn’t have direct retail or sports industry experience. Mr. Plank told The New York Times, ”Those fresh eyes are going to be really helpful for Under Armour.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of the hiring of Stephanie Linnartz to guide Under Armour’s next phase of growth? What are the advantages and disadvantages of outside CEO hires?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"If the new CEO brings hospitality’s hyperfocus on the customer, then it’s going to be a win for Under Armour."
"Excellent leadership is transferable from industry to industry, company to company. We’ve seen so many examples."
"The main advantage of a CEO from outside of the industry is more than “fresh eyes” but a new lens to view the business through."

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21 Comments on "Can a hospitality bigwig bring new life to Under Armour?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Ms. Linnartz has a depth of experience in driving results — something Under Armour needs. The lack of direct category experience is easily offset by a multitude of expertise in other areas that will be beneficial to the business. This is a classic example of hiring from outside vs. inside the industry. And while there are plenty of examples both of this working out well and of it being a failure, overall I lean toward the position that excellent leaders can make an impact, regardless of the industry. This is what Under Armour is betting on.

Jenn McMillen
BrainTrust

If the new CEO brings hospitality’s hyperfocus on the customer, then it’s going to be a win for Under Armour.

KarenBurdette
Guest

Agree 100%! I love to see leadership cross over into new categories or industries to see what creative ideas can bloom. I’m sure there are many positive leadership characteristics she brings to the table, but a love of the customer from the hospitality industry will be great for the Under Armour brand.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

There is no doubt that Ms. Linnartz is very talented and has a wealth of experience, including in a consumer facing business. She will also bring an outside and a female perspective, both of which Under Armour desperately needs as it is still a very male focused and internally driven business. That said, the lack of retail experience is a slight worry as most of Under Armour’s issues and opportunities revolve around product and its distribution. However the business is larger than one person and Ms. Linnartz is clearly a team player so hopefully she will be able to leverage the in-house retail skills. Good luck to her!

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Regardless of Ms. Linnartz’s lack of direct experience in the apparel and retail industries, hopefully she brings what Under Armour needs — namely, operational skill, expertise at brand management, and leadership.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

The secret is to bring in someone whose leadership DNA matches the phase of development you want to move to — NOT the phase you’re in. All indications seem to be that this is indeed the case for Ms. Linnartz. Wise move for Under Armour.

David Spear
BrainTrust

Bringing in a new executive with hospitality experience should be a great fit. One of the biggest commonalities is understanding consumer behavior and orienting product lines to suit those desires and need-states. Clearly, Ms. Linnartz has tremendous experience building the loyalty Bonvoy program to incredible heights and I would expect her to begin designing a similar type program for Under Armour. The other aspect that is very appealing is her experience developing significant partnerships with some of the world’s biggest sports franchises (NFL, F1, NCAA). These relationships she’s curated over the last several years will be key to unlocking new and differentiated programs exclusively for UA.

Mark Self
BrainTrust

Time will tell! In many cases a fresh, “outside” perspective can reinvigorate a business. Lou Gerstner did this at IBM and at the time there was not a lot of positive energy around that hire (how can a CPG executive turn around a tech company blah blah blah). The success of an outside hire also depends on the culture she or he is inheriting. I do not see any middle ground here — there is either success or not, with this kind of hire. Good luck to her!

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

Under Armour’s decision to place Ms. Linnartz at the helm isn’t a stretch and would seem to be quite timely. The revitalization that she led at Marriott centered on brand extensions and strategic partnerships, many of which were in the sports realm. Under Armour was smart to focus on business model alignment rather than limiting its options to literal category criteria.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

This is a trend I’m not aligned with: a new CEO with no direct experience. As a matter of fact, in this case, won’t a lot of time be spent on things any veteran would know but are very difficult to understand without hands-on experience? Like manufacturing lead times, fabric R&D, competitive strategies — I mean, the list goes on. You can’t attract females and kids of you can’t get the right goods. Of course you never know, pure naïveté and marketing may work out in the end, but if I were a Vegas odds maker, I’d place her at 20 to 1 odds of failure.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Clearly, Ms. Linnartz is an exceptional leader. My guess is Ms. Linnartz may have seen her contributions at Marriott complete and is ready for new challenges. The top spot at Marriott was recently blocked. What more could she do?

Her biggest challenge will be changing the brand message ingrained in the Under Armour brand and whether she will have the resources to do it.

Tara Kirkpatrick
BrainTrust
The main advantage of a CEO from outside of the industry is more than “fresh eyes” but a new lens to view the business through. Hospitality is a most dynamic service offering, and its leaders have transferable experiences to almost all industries, in my opinion. After all, it’s an industry revolving around superior customer experience, which should be core to all businesses but isn’t always built that way. Here are a couple specific ways this leader lends herself to the retail business without having the direct experience: Events and guest experiences. Both play a major role in other fitness/wellness retail businesses like Lululemon, Athleta, and Urban Outfitter-owned Free People, for example. All three have studio spaces within certain store locations and host local movement events. Lululemon is now building special events into its loyalty program to unlock unexpected consumer spending. Mobile is mirroring hospitality more and more every day, as it serves as a primary customer experience channel that is expected to deliver in the same “expected, but still delightful way” that your hotel stay… Read more »
Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Brands can sometimes fall into a self seducing process where they keep loving what they have been developing and are insufficiently focused on the customer and the evolving market. This the perfect moment for Under Armour to be importing a strong external point of view to challenge the status quo. One can only hope that Ms. Linnartz is truly given the latitude required to make the necessary changes. This will inevitably get uncomfortable for Mr. Plank. Handled correctly, that’s a good thing.

Shelley E. Kohan
BrainTrust

There is so much talent in the apparel industry and while a fresh set of eyes is great, the complexities of running a global fashion brand make it a challenge. I’m not sure why Under Armour would go outside the industry. With that said, hospitality makes a great transition from a customer service perspective. Linnartz can lead, so it comes down to the team that surrounds her. It’s a big risk for the company who wants to focus on product and branding.

Joan Treistman
BrainTrust

Excellent leadership is transferable from industry to industry, company to company. We’ve seen so many examples. She’ll need to have the support and confidence across all facets of Under Armour. I’d hate to see Ms. Linnartz limited to a younger female focus for the brand.

Patrick Jacobs
BrainTrust

Under Armour will benefit from Ms. Linnartz’s ability to shore up missed opportunities and start to close the gap with competitors. The needed strategy to compete more effectively is large and will be an uphill battle.

There are many verticals that need to be revamped beyond just digital, as the “Taking Stock With Teens” survey reinforces. The immediate need is for the brand to be setting the pulse for the market, Ms. Linnartz will need to set the right teams in place to get this accomplished.

Mohamed Amer, PhD
BrainTrust

In addition to her deep digital transformation expertise, Ms. Linnartz will bring a fresh perspective and a strong execution discipline to Under Armour. The company’s distribution and product challenges are known, but the biggest hurdle Ms. Linnartz will have to overcome is moving Under Armour beyond its linked identity with Mr. Plank. As founder and long-time CEO, he has provided passion and vision since its founding, which fell short in the past five years. The partnership dynamics between the two executives will determine the future success or failure of Ms. Linnartz at Under Armour.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Ms Linnartz brings several capabilities to UA- including:

  • Experience with loyalty program growth
  • Strong sports program relationship building
  • External view to a broad set of product lines
  • Global reach and mass marketing reach
  • Connections with retail mgmt: Home Depot
  • Leadership capacity: including multi-executive views

Though being a female leader is great, in this case her qualifications are not predicated on her gender at all. She offers a solid executive package regardless of gender, especially for UA.

Great move by the UA board. Looking forward to see successes from this move. She will be competing against the likes of Nike, Adidas, New Balance and more; bringing UA back to the retail spotlight will be a key undertaking.

Brad Halverson
Guest

Bigger questions about broader product strategy and brand differentiation need to be addressed. How will Under Armour continue to compete with Nike and Adidas on quality, design, and partnerships? How will they be different, or better? Answer this and newly crafted loyalty programs, growth and performance fall into line.

Hopefully Ms. Linnartz will be allowed to shake up the status quo to accomplish meaningful growth.

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust

I like the hire.

Outside CEOs can bring a ton of applicable learnings from other categories that can help UA move up from its current plateau.

David Slavick
BrainTrust

Short answer, No. To win is to innovate. To innovate you need to understand product design, sourcing, merchandise planning/analysis and so much more. What about the release says innovation? None. Nada. The brand is awesome. The product very affordable. The shopping experience at the UA Brand House is underwhelming. Nike stays ahead and so does Adidas through direct-to-consumer sales model and sports sponsorships plus regional/country focus. UA has a lot to address but they do have assets to take advantage of — brand love, health and fitness apps, etc. Their loyalty program is a big yawn. Points are boring — bring experiential rewards, access, engagement, social sharing at a community level into everything the brand and the program represents.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"If the new CEO brings hospitality’s hyperfocus on the customer, then it’s going to be a win for Under Armour."
"Excellent leadership is transferable from industry to industry, company to company. We’ve seen so many examples."
"The main advantage of a CEO from outside of the industry is more than “fresh eyes” but a new lens to view the business through."

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