When he joined Under Armour, Inc., in 2004, former Ernst & Young senior manager David Bergman knew the risks. Then, with just over 400 employees and US$200 million in annual sales, the maverick athletic apparel company was attempting to muscle out some turf in a field dominated by a handful of multibillion-dollar mega-brands, including Nike, Adidas and Reebok.
But the normally low-key Bergman says something about the organization’s energy and momentum just got him “fired up.” Today, as Under Armour’s Corporate Controller, Bergman is part of a US$1 billion, 3,000-plus employee, global public company that Fast Company calls “a giant killer.”
Founded in 1994 by former University of Maryland football player Kevin Plank, Under Armour is perhaps best known for its moisture-wicking athletic apparel. The company also gained fame for an innovative marketing campaign launched in 2003.
In the now-legendary TV spots, former NFL defensive end Eric Ogbogu (one of Plank’s former Maryland teammates) passionately screams from within a huddle, “We must protect this house!” The ads created a sensation. And the “Protect This House” slogan stuck.
Bergman draws a strong parallel between the company’s motto and his job. “It’s hard to explain the passion, excitement and enthusiasm here,” he says.
As a result, Bergman frequently finds himself in a position where he must occasionally say, “good idea,” and then gently apply the brakes. “We need to stay nimble, and we don’t want to put up unnecessary roadblocks,” he adds, “but we need to make sure we’re looking at all the right perspectives and going through a robust decision-making process without taking away the passion from the idea itself.” To Bergman, that’s protecting his house.
Respecting his house
In a sports-rich environment where meetings are “huddles” and leaders are “captains,” respect, says Bergman, is paramount. A key tenet at Under Armour is that no one person is bigger than the brand.
According to Bergman, that means that no matter who you are, no matter what your pedigree, you must have respect for the brand and for your teammates. “Under Armour literally began from the trunk of Kevin Plank’s car,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter if you have an MBA from a top school, at Under Armour, you need to first learn and respect that culture…the people who’ve built this company and been in the trenches…then you bring your own individual value to the table. That’s respect.”
Respect is important to Bergman in another sense: it’s smart business. In the high-growth, fast-paced world of Under Armour, one of his biggest challenges is staying ahead of the curve. “I need to always make sure my team and I are in the loop.”
For instance, the company recently started doing business in China. Bergman’s team had to investigate import laws, leasing agreements, payroll protocols and a host of other issues. “We needed to know how to do it and how to do it right before we started shipping product,” he says.
A key tenet at Under Armour is that no one person is bigger than the brand. For David Bergman, that means that no matter who you are, no matter what your pedigree, you must have respect for the brand and for your teammates.
By continually working to show and gain the respect of his Under Armour teammates, he strives to keep the communication channels open — while enhancing the prospects for success.
As much as Bergman loves working at Under Armour, he says making the switch from Ernst & Young was one of the most difficult decisions of his life, something he actually lost sleep over. Bergman initially joined Arthur Andersen out of college.
He was a manager there when that firm collapsed in 2002. But in a unique show of teaming, the entire Baltimore Arthur Andersen office made a pact. They agreed that whatever they did, they would do it together — all 100-plus members, staff through partner.
After considering their options, Bergman and his Arthur Andersen colleagues agreed that Ernst & Young was the best “fit,” both from a strength and culture standpoint. So on a Wednesday in May 2002, the Baltimore Arthur Andersen office closed its doors for good.
“The very next day, we reported to work at Ernst & Young,” he recalls. As a testimony to the smoothness of the transition, all but one client made the transition with them to Ernst & Young.
Bergman is a strong believer in the power of remaining connected with both his fellow Ernst & Young alumni and current professionals. “I’m the first to admit I don’t have all the answers,” he confesses.
But knowing that he can pick up the phone and call any number of his Ernst & Young colleagues gives him great comfort: “I still feel like I’m plugged in.”
He continues to stay in contact with former partners Dale Erdly and Jerry Stone, as well as with current partner Kyle Miller, the three individuals he says most helped shape his career. A member of the Baltimore Area Alumni Council, Bergman is also founder and Co-chair (along with fellow alum Joe Wagner) of the Ernst & Young Controllers Focus Group of Maryland.
Of course, the Ernst & Young person he is most interested in staying in touch with is his wife, Jennifer. Jennifer Bergman is currently a Business Development Executive in the firm’s Baltimore office. The couple has two children, ages 20 months and 6 months, and enjoys a shared passion for soccer and boating on the Chesapeake.