From NCAA championships to mortgage originations

by MPA15 Jan 2015
When Mat Ishbia was in college, the mortgage industry was the furthest thing from his mind. What Ishbia ate, breathed and slept in those days was basketball. He played for Michigan State for four years, under the legendary coach Tom Izzo.

“I was a walk-on who earned a scholarship after a couple of years, and I was there at the best time to be there. In my first three years, we went to three straight Final Fours and won a national championship,” Ishbia says. “If you go to one NCAA tournament, you’re happy. And if you go to one Final Four, it’s incredible. I was there at a great time with a bunch of great players and a great coach.”

In his fifth year, Ishbia got a chance to coach under Izzo – and learned things he’d carry with him into the business world.

“I got to see the ‘why’ behind how the coach did things – the structure, the discipline, the way that he did things,” he said. “It all made sense to me that fifth year. I was able to see what real success was – being at the top of your craft, and what it was like to be around the best in the country.”

But Ishbia had a decision to make. He could continue to coach basketball – or he could take his chances in the business world. It wasn’t an easy decision to make.

“Basketball was all I knew as a kid, then all I knew as a player and a coach. I knew I could do it, and I knew I could do a great job at it,” he says. “The deciding factor was that I saw what it took to be the best, an elite basketball coach – the demands on your time – and I basically made a decision that instead of working 100 hours a week, I’d work 70 or 80 hours a week and have the opportunity to build a team of – instead of just 11 or 15 people – 1,100 or 1,500 people. I thought I could make a bigger impact in the mortgage world. I could control my own destiny by outworking everybody, by leading a team of adults and businesspeople to do something special. Obviously college basketball is a pretty high level, but I also think there are some great things you can do in the business world, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

So Ishbia joined United Wholesale Mortgage. The company was the wholesale division of United Shore, a company started by Ishbia’s father in 1986 as a small retail brokerage. Ishbia’s father – an attorney who stayed out of day-to-day operations – insisted that Ishbia learn the business the hard way.

“When I started working there, he said, ‘Look, if you want to come here and try to learn the mortgage business, that’s great – but you’ve got to start at the bottom and work your way up.’ And that’s what I did. . I started at the very bottom of the mortgage company taking faxes off the fax machine and putting them in the underwriting file. Then I was learning about underwriting loans, becoming an account executive – I’ve been on all the different teams in the company, and  applied all the learning I had from Tom Izzo and Michigan State basketball to my daily practices here at United Wholesale. And I’ve been here 12 years doing that.”

By 2008, Ishbia was running UWM. And by bringing to bear the lessons he learned on the basketball court, he quickly transformed the company into one of the top wholesale lenders in the nation.

“We went from being kind of a no-name company to being the No. 1 or No. 2 wholesaler in all of America – not just based on me, but based on our whole team,” he says. “We have a great team of people because we’ve fostered the culture I learned in Michigan State basketball: Taking care of our people, holding people accountable, highly rewarding and recognizing people – making this place a destination where people want to go.”

And he does that by creating an environment that’s fun and open – but also one that insists on hard work and personal accountability.

“One of the sayings we had at Michigan State that we live by here at our company is that we are thumb-pointers, not finger-pointers,” Ishbia says. “Instead saying, ‘Gosh, if the pricing were better,’ or, ‘If only underwriting would have approved my loan,’ and pointing the finger at everyone else, maybe you should say, ‘Well, maybe I should have done a better job explaining what our processes are. Maybe I should have worked a little bit harder.’ Everyone being accountable is a really big thing here. Look at yourself in the mirror first. Be accountable.”

But with that accountability comes the right to question, Ishbia says. Everyone – from the company’s top executives to the newest underwriter – has that right, Ishbia says.

“I don’t care if you’ve been here one minute or 10 or 20 years – anything that we do, you have the right to ask us why. I actually invite that and solicit the why. For instance, if I say, ‘Hey, guys, we’re going to start underwriting loans at 7 a.m. tomorrow,’ I have to be able to explain why. What that does is foster the attitude that there’s no dictatorship here – this is a team.”

Not only does his open-door policy help morale, Ishbia says – it often helps the company itself improve its policies and procedures. That’s because the people in the trenches often ask questions that don’t occur to the executives.

“All the time I walk by salespeople, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, Mat, do you know why we have this overlay on this underwriting?’ And sometimes I’ll say, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t even know we had that. Let me talk to the head of underwriting.’ And we’ll change it and make it better,” he says. “It’s a spirit of continuous improvement. We’re getting better every day. We are not staying status quo; we’re trying to get better and better and better.”

Click here to read the full story in our latest e-version of Mortgage Professional America magazine.


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