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What One CEO Learned From His Old Coach, Tom Izzo

Former Michigan State University guard Mat Ishbia runs United Wholesale Mortgage like a basketball team.
What One CEO Learned From His Old Coach, Tom Izzo
Image credit: Grant Halverson | Getty Images

37-year-old Mat Ishbia is CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM), and while that may sound impressive enough, he also played basketball at Michigan State University for three years and went to three Final Fours.

Now, Ishbia’s years of dedication to basketball have helped him lead his billion-dollar mortgage company.

Time with Mr. March

Ishbia played guard for Michigan State’s winningest basketball team for three seasons. If that wasn’t amazing enough, he stayed on after graduation and spent his fifth year working beside the infamous Coach Tom Izzo, who has the most wins in school history.

“He might be the best coach in the world,” says Ishbia, who made the 1998-99 team as a walk-on.

Izzo has been the head coach for the Michigan State Spartans men's basketball team since 1995. His teams have earned invitations to 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments, which, combined with his tournament success, earned him the nickname "Mr. March."

So, spending a year as an assistant coach with Izzo was a dream for Ishbia. “I learned the ‘why’ behind everything,” he says. And, while he wanted to stay in athletics, it was Izzo who said, “you can do bigger things in business world.”

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

Integrity first

Ishbia’s father had a wholesale mortgage business and so he went there for what he thought would be a short-term stint.

“I got paid $18,000 and had to take faxes off the machine and walk them over to the underwriters,” says Ishbia. Sure, he got the Student Athlete President’s Award at Michigan State, but his dad didn’t care. His father made him start at the bottom like everyone else.

“But I learned every job,” says Ishbia.

That was fourteen years ago. Now, he is CEO.

And while his father has stepped down, his emphasis on integrity has stayed with the company, says Ishbia.

That’s what helped them survive the housing crisis.

“I give my father credit. Back in ‘06 and ‘07, these guys were doing these [subprime] loans and we were struggling. The Wall Street firms couldn’t couldn’t get enough of mortgage-backed securities and kept one-upping each other until it got dangerous.”

But his father would not allow subprime loans. Many employees left to go make money. And he didn’t care.

Team UWM

Unsurprisingly, Ishbia now runs UWM like a team.

You don’t have to have played basketball at Michigan State, but you do need to be competitive, coachable and committed. That’s why he hires a ton of former athletes, military members and moms who are going back to work -- because no one knows how to commit and multitask better than a mom.

He even created a Moms Back in Business career fair that UWM used to recruit stay-at-home moms looking to return to the workforce.

Related: Inspiring Quotes to Help You Get Through Your Work Day

It’s still about winning

“The team with the best players wins,” he says, “and we outperformed the market by four times.”

Last year, UWM processed $23 billion worth of mortgages, nearly triple the $8 billion figure from 2014.

Much of this growth has to do with the way he’s rethinking the industry.

“We made the process much easier. Everything is virtual so we don’t have to chase down statements. And while e-signing is here, Ishbia believes e-closings are coming.

“Millennials don’t want to sit at a bank and save money for 10 years to get 20 percent, so it has to change.”

Getting brokers in the mix

Ishbia is determined to educate consumers on the importance of using mortgage brokers -- partly to help UWM’s bottom line (you need a broker to get access to their products), but partly because it’s difficult to choose from a plethora of mortgage products out there.

So, Ishbia has campaigned to grow the mortgage broker industry, creating programs and initiatives such as in-house trainings, white-label marketing services and offers grants so they can launch their own brokerages. The more mortgage brokers are educated, the more transparent the process is.

He also suggests using findmortgagebroker.com to find a good, local mortgage broker.

Related: 11 Habits of Truly Happy People 

What comes next?

Ishbia had a few predictions for the mortgage market.

  1. The adjustable rate mortgage is coming back. “90 percent of people are not in same mortgage after nine years. Even if you stay in the house, you’re not going to stay in the mortgage.”
  2. People will buy more houses as interest rates increase. While that’s not revolutionary, it’s encouraging.
  3. You will no longer need to put 20 percent down. “Why not put 10 percent down and build up your personal reserves?”
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