WSJ: Under Armour CEO’s relationship with MSNBC anchor causes stir

Posted at 3:33 PM, Feb 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-22 08:17:12-05

Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank has been soliciting business advice from MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Under Armour employees were uncomfortable with the relationship, according to the newspaper, which also said that Ruhle traveled with Plank and Under Armour staff on a private jet he leases to the company.

The Journal cited a number of anonymous sources, including what it described as current and former executives, as well as “others familiar with the matter.”

The newspaper reported that Plank took Ruhle’s advice, rather than Under Armour management’s, about how to handle customer backlash over a version of basketball star Stephen Curry’s sneakers in 2016. She also advised Plank on how to deal with President Donald Trump in 2017, according to the article. Plank and other high-profile business leaders quit Trump’s manufacturing council that year after Trump failed to condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Former and current executives said Mr. Plank’s use of the jet and his relationship with Ms. Ruhle were among the many ways the CEO blurred the lines between his personal activities and Under Armour,” the Journal reported.

Under Armour’s board of directors reviewed emails between the two last year, and asked Plank about the relationship and “whether company assets were used,” according to the Journal. Plank told them no company funds were spent. The Journal could not determine whether the board took additional action.

In a statement to CNN Business, a spokesperson for Under Armour said that “Mr. Plank is entirely focused on Under Armour and its success.”

Kelley McCormick, Under Armour’s senior vice president of communications, told the Journal that Plank and Ruhle “are friends.”

“The idea that Mr. Plank uniquely listens to any one individual is absurd,” she told the newspaper, adding that Plank has many friends who offer advice, but the management team makes its own decisions.

A spokesperson for MSNBC declined to comment on behalf of the company. Ruhle also declined to comment.

Plank’s activities and Under Armour’s workplace culture have been questioned in the past.

In November, the Journal reported that executives and employees, including Plank, attended strip clubs with athletes and co-workers over the years.

In a letter to employees at the time, Plank and President Patrik Frisk told employees that the Journal story was “tough to read.”

“This is not the culture we envision for Under Armour,” they wrote. “Inappropriate behavior that challenges our values or violates our policies is unaccepPlank’s activities and Under Armour’s workplace culture have been questioned in the past.

Plank founded Under Armour in 1996. He has majority voting control over the company through a dual class stock model and is able to control the election of members of the board of directors.

Charles Elson, director of the center for corporate governance at the University of Delaware, said that these types of governing structures lead to weak oversight because members of the board of directors can easily be replaced.

“The board has very little power in these kinds of companies to do anything,” Elson said. “It’s an accountability killer.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly characterized earlier reports about Plank and the company’s culture.