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Interview: Mat Ishbia, CEO of United Shore Financial Services

From Big Ten baller to mortgage-lending maven

It’s a funny thing about the dreams we have for ourselves when we’re kids. Everyone thinks they’ll do grand and wonderful things, like be an astronaut or play professional sports.

But how many of us can reach out and touch our dream, and then decide to go another way? How many have the guts and strength to take a leap into the unknown, and then once we find solid footing in the unknown, how many of us have what it takes to not only survive but to thrive?

Mat Ishbia is one of those people.

Ishbia, 35, is the president and chief executive officer of United Shore Financial Services, one of the country’s largest wholesale mortgage companies. But that’s about 180 degrees away from where he thought his life was headed not that long ago.

Ishbia grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, about 10 minutes from where United Shore’s offices are today, playing just about every sport under the sun. But unlike most of us, he was actually quite good at one of those sports — basketball.

In high school, Ishbia averaged 23 points a game and dished out eight assists per game as his team’s point guard. His senior year, he was second in the county in scoring to Dane Fife, who was the state’s Mr. Basketball and went on to play four years at Indiana University.

He was also the floor general on an AAU team — the Michigan Mustangs — that featured future NBA star Jason Richardson at small forward and future NFL Pro Bowler Antonio Gates at power forward. The team would make it all the way to the AAU national championship game in Las Vegas before falling just short of winning it all.

At 5’9”, 170 pounds, Ishbia said he knew he wasn’t going to make it to the NBA but felt he could play and play well in college.

“I could definitely hold my own and play with anyone in the country,” Ishbia said. “But was I ever making it to the NBA? The answer is no.”

Ishbia was offered several scholarships and opportunities to play at smaller Division I basketball schools, as well as the smaller schools in Division II and Division III.

But Ishbia thought that smaller schools weren’t for him.

“My mentality, which ties into my business mentality, is that I want to be and play against the best around,” he continues. “So I wasn’t going to settle and go play at a smaller school, where I would have always sat there and said, ‘Could I have competed against Mateen Cleaves or Jason Richardson or those guys?’ That doesn’t sit well with me. To me, I have to play against the best and compete with the best at all times.”

Ishbia was recruited by Michigan State and offered the opportunity to join the program as a preferred walk-on. He got to compete against players like Cleaves, who would become a three-time All-American, Richardson and others — except he competed against them in practice instead of during games.

Despite only playing when the team was “up by a lot,” Ishbia’s college basketball experience shaped his life more than any other experience and still guides him today.

In his first three years at Michigan State the team went to three Final Fours, won
three Big Ten championships and won a national championship.

“It was a great experience. I got to be around the best players in college and one of, what I consider to be the best coaches in the world, Tom Izzo,” Ishbia says. “I got to see him at his prime as he was driving that program from a known program to a super program.”

Ishbia got to see Izzo early in his Michigan State coaching career, before Izzo became IZZO.

“What was so amazing about being around him was the intensity and the drive that this guy has. He didn’t accept good. He didn’t accept great. He accepted your best. ‘Perfection every single day.’ And he knows you can’t be perfect, but he didn’t want you to try not to be,” he said.

For Ishbia, it was the little things that set Izzo apart.

“With Izzo, every nuance, every detail mattered. There was nothing going on out on that court that wasn’t scripted and controlled
and coached by him. Izzo was a maniac on those details.”

Despite Ishbia’s lack of playing time during games, in Izzo’s eyes, every member of the team was an important cog in a machine that was in a perpetual search for perfection.

“Every single day we competed. Our practices were just as competitive as most of the games we played in,” Ishbia said. “There wasn’t a day that went by, even with Mateen Cleaves as the starting point guard — and he’s still a very good friend of mine nowadays — that I didn’t think I was better than him. I was going to take the ball from him and kick his a** every day, excuse my language. That’s how we did it. Izzo wasn’t keeping people just to keep them on the team.”

Ishbia’s experience and around the Michigan State program had a critical impact on his life. He saw Izzo’s style up close and personal as a player and later as a student assistant.

“Now, people would give their left arm to go play for Coach Izzo. Back then, it wasn’t really that way,” Ishbia says. “I knew this guy was different. I knew he was doing things and I was so impressed in seeing how he was doing things. But you didn’t know, oh he’s this guy going to seven of the next 13 Final Fours and become a legendary coach. I didn’t know that.”

Ishbia says that many of the lessons he learned from Izzo still resonate today.

“One of the things he talked about was don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. As soon as you take a deep breath and think that you’re someone, someone else that has that hunger you used to have is going to run right by you,” Ishbia said. “One of the sayings we had when we won the national championship is never relax.

“That’s how I live my life today. As we grow from being the No.1 or maybe the No. 2 wholesale lender, we’re never relaxing,” Ishbia says. “I’m not happy where we’re at. We’re bigger than we’ve even been. We’re stronger than we’ve ever been, but we’re never relaxing. We have to take it to the next level.”

But Ishbia never thought he’d be working at a wholesale mortgage lender. In fact, he thought he was going to follow in Izzo’s footsteps.

After three years as a walk-on, Ishbia got a scholarship for this fourth and fifth year in college. He played in his fourth year, but in the fifth year, he served as a student assistant coach, and sat in with Coach Izzo and the assistants for every game. Izzo was a master at combining structure and accountability but also by having a little bit of fun, too, and those are lessons that Ishbia has applied in business.

“Understanding ‘the why’ behind what he does and why he did it that way was so eye-opening my fifth year that I was able to take not only my playing experience but also that side of coaching, and that’s what I’ve turned into a lot of what we do with our business here.”

“This guy is watching film until midnight or 1 a.m. on a random Tuesday. I was thinking, this guy is absolutely nuts. And then I come back at 8 a.m. and he’s already there. He’s driven to be the best.”

When Ishbia was serving as a student assistant, one of Izzo’s assistant coaches was offered a head coaching job and asked Ishbia to come with him to serve as his assistant coach. The job would have made him the youngest assistant coach in all of college basketball, but a conversation with Izzo changed Ishbia’s whole life.

“When I was deciding what to do, I went and talked to Coach Izzo about it,” Ishbia says. “He said, ‘Mat, you would be great as a coach. You can go do that and be awesome. But you can take this and be great in business too. Don’t be close-minded to thinking the only thing you can be great in is basketball. I know basketball and that’s what I’ve lived my whole life. You can do anything you want, so make the decision for what you want to do for the long-term.’”

Ishbia took Izzo’s words to heart and thought long and hard about what he wanted to do. “Izzo said, ‘Everything we do here can be applied to business or whatever you do in life, if you really live the way we live it here.’ And he couldn’t be more accurate on that because we run things like a Michigan State basketball program. Almost like 70% of it. He works 100 hours, I work 70. And he thinks I’m slacking,” Ishbia said with a laugh.

So Ishbia decided to leave basketball behind, although he hadn’t plotted his next move yet. His father wanted him to be an attorney, but he knew law school wasn’t for him. Ishbia’s father owned several other businesses, including a small mortgage brokerage that his father started in 1986.

“My dad said the mortgage business has this huge opportunity and we’re a small little company, but maybe we can do something big with it. So I said, I’ll go do it for a year.”

Ishbia’s father may have owned the business, but Ishbia didn’t ride his father’s coattails at all.

“I started at the bottom and worked every part of the business. Back then, you could write loans because you didn’t have to be licensed. So I was writing streamlines on the weekend because we were trying to do business all the time.”

Ishbia was working 65-70 hours a week and learning quickly. “It wasn’t even six months into it that I realized this is what I wanted to do for good — I love it. It’s a challenge. I’m able to take a lot of my basketball knowledge and apply it to this business.”After surviving the subprime crisis by, well, avoiding subprime loans altogether, the company found itself in a strong position as a lender specializing in Federal Housing Administration loans.

“We had FHA and conventional expertise and that’s where the whole market turned to,” Ishbia said. “We went from doing a couple hundred million in FHA loans to a billion dollars a year. And then we grew it to $2 billion. And then we started to build on it from there.”

United Shore went from 11 employees to its current employment level of 1,200.

How did they get there? Lessons Ishbia learned from Izzo, of course.

“Don’t follow conventional wisdom all the time. Conventional wisdom was to go out and hire outside sales reps and get really good pricing, then offer these oddball products,” Ishbia says. “We have 270 inside sales executives. We don’t have outside sales people. We build our relationships from the inside.”

Ishbia says that United Shore wants to do the “cream of the crop” loans.

“We want to give the best service because top clients want the best service. And we’re going to do it in a different way,” Ishbia says. “We’re not afraid to change. We’re constantly changing. Where we’re at today has got nothing to do with where we’re going to be tomorrow because we’re constantly getting better,” he continues.

Ishbia tweaks his system but he never strays too far from Izzo’s teachings.Interview quote

“We have a 1,200-person basketball team here. It’s a little harder to create with 1,200 as opposed to 14 or 15, but we have a lot of that here. We have a lot of camaraderie. Culture and team is really important,” Ishbia says.

Part of the company’s culture is to refer to employees as team members.

“We have a group called the captains, which are the leaders of the company. We have a lot of competition between teams like underwriting and sales and closing and post-closing,” he says. “We eat lunch together. We spend time together outside of work. We care about each other. There’s probably no other company in the country that has what we have here
from a culture perspective and a team camaraderie perspective.”

Outside of work, Ishbia doesn’t have much time for basketball right now.

“I spend a lot of time with my kids. I’m either 100% work focused or 100% family focused,” Ishbia says. “There’s not really time for anything else. I love what I do. My work family of 1,200 people is awesome. And my family at home is great.”

But he’ll never forget his basketball family either.

“You ask me what I miss most about Michigan State basketball — I miss the 15 minutes after practice or after games in the locker room where we’d be joking around, listening to music, talking about stuff, because that’s really where we all bond. That’s the time you miss.”

And one time while at Michigan State, Ishbia got to play with the school’s most famous alum, and that experience left a lasting impact too.

“One time, we were playing in an open gym run, and Magic shows up,” Ishbia says. “So, the managers ask him who he wants to play with and he says he’ll take whoever is next up. Well, it was me and three other guys who can’t really play that well,” he says.

“Magic was just an inspirational leader. He made every player out there better. He was talking to all of us. ‘Hey Mat, take that shot next time, you’ll make it.’ And we went out and won the game against the starters,” Ishbia continues.

“So we take that to our company here,” he says. “Are you making the people around you better? Are you being the best you can be or are you helping? As a leader, inspiration is something we talk about. Can you inspire more out of your team members? Can you inspire the person next to you to be a little better today?”

How’s that for a dream come true?  

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