I went to Baltimore earlier this week to visit with Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour. While I was in town, I was taken on a tour of Port Covington, a post-industrial district in the city that was once a working port and railyard. Now Plank is trying to bring back domestic manufacturing through a $5.5 billion mixed-use project which will house the new Under Armour campus, a distillery called Sagamore Spirit and two business incubators.
I went to the incubators to see what was going on. City Garage, formerly a bus depot, is now set up to house 100 people in start-ups. Plank is trying to recreate his grandmother’s bedroom where he started Under Armour while a college athlete at Maryland. In one room, a group of University of North Carolina students who were interning at Plank Industries for the summer were brainstorming about connecting promising high school youth in Baltimore to college readiness programs. In another, a group of bright programmers were working on robots for repetitive motion function for Ready Robotics, which will be installed at a Baltimore maker of industrial steel baskets.
Then I went across to the Foundery, which is intended to prepare urban residents for an advanced manufacturing future. There were former steelworkers working on CAD machines, learning to precisely cut wood and steel. Another part of the building is occupied by a skateboard company that will take your design preference from a web-based order and deliver the finished board by the end of the day. This is workforce training for a local population with an elevated level of poverty and unemployment.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was my stop at Sagamore Spirits, a whiskey distillery. Before prohibition, Baltimore was the national center of whiskey production. Now Plank hopes to regain Maryland’s rightful share of liquor production away from Kentucky and other states. The distillery has huge vats of rye and corn being fermented, then giant heaters that separate the liquor from the grains, which fall to the bottom of the still.
Finally, I had an opportunity to visit the UA Lighthouse, the company’s innovation center, trying to perfect new ways to manufacture clothing and shoes. From a scanning machine that can custom cut the athlete’s clothing to a new way to combine the upper and lower part of a sneaker without glue. This is the beginning of the in-sourcing of production to America.
In the next phase, business will have to fill the void left by government, which is unable or unwilling to lead at the moment. As I walked around that afternoon, I had a deeper appreciation than ever for bold entrepreneurs who remain city boys, determined to make dreams come true in urban centers that deserve another chance at glory.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.