Detroit Is THIS Podcast: Mat Ishbia, CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage Shares on Business Success and Doing Right and Good Things Happen

In Episode #8, Detroitisit Founder and Host Ivana Kalafatic Speaks with Mat Ishbia About Being Competitive, Becoming a Billionaire, and Building Teams

Welcome to a new episode of Detroit Is THIS, a podcast hosted by Ivana Kalafatic, founder of Detroitisit. The show follows thought leaders, community change agents, makers, innovators, and entrepreneurs as they share their personal and professional stories. 

Through these conversations, we’ll explore opportunities and solutions for the new times we find ourselves in.

In Episode #8, Ivana talks to Mat Ishbia, President & CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage, on Ishbia’s background, building United Wholesale Mortgage to what it is today, how the company is helping the local community, and where they have seen success in recent years.

Mat Ishbia speaks on his experience playing and coaching at Michigan State University with Tom Izzo, shares advice he has for emerging entrepreneurs, provides intel on how he strives to be #1 in the industry and the importance of ‘staying in the weeds’ of your business.

Throughout the podcast, Ivana and Mat detail how to approach the market as we embark through the pandemic, as well as how people will look at the future of business after the pandemic and how he finds time to balance life, work, and family.

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS AND MAT ISHBIA’S ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS AND LEADERS:

  • Be so tied into your consumer and the weeds of your business, do not think that you can just assume anything. There is nothing I’m not involved with, I know what’s going on and that plays a key role in the success of the company.
  • From an innovative perspective, you have to have your alone time. You need to time to get focused, get your grind time and think about things with no other interruptions.
  • Be innovative and be involved, that’s how you will get your ideas.
  • Be positive. There are a lot of tough things in the world, but I choose to focus on the great ones. Positivity is a big deal. I’m not down on anything. You can tell me a lot of things, I’m going to be pretty positive about almost everything that comes my way.

 

GIVE US SOME BACKGROUND ON YOURSELF AND UNITED WHOLESALE MORTGAGE

I grew up here in Metro Detroit, played high school basketball eventually got a chance to, after graduating high school, played via preferred walk on a Michigan state’s basketball team. I got a chance to play for Tom Izzo. My first three years were three Final Fours, three BIG10 champions and national champs, I got there at the best time. I’m not very good, I was at the end of the bench, but I was on a great team with great players and a great coach. So it was a great experience. I was there for a total of five years, including the last year where I coached with Izzo and I learned so much. I wasn’t planning on coaching, I wasn’t good enough to go to the NBA. So let’s go coach and learn from Izzo, who I think is one of the best 10 people in the world at what he does, and after I decided to, instead of going the college basketball route, to go into the business world where my father had started.

My father’s an attorney, he doesn’t work here, and never has worked here, but he has a couple of small businesses and one of them was a small mortgage company that he started in 1986. I became the 12th person here at UWM in 2003, and kind of started running the business and learn the business from the ground up making $18,000 a year to start kind of building the business, learning everything, asking a million questions, coming in early, staying late, and really learned the business from the ground up. Over the those 10 years, we went from 12 people to almost 1000 people, maybe a little more than that, by the time I became the CEO and then in 2013 and then we kind of grew it from there.

From 2013 to now we’re at 500 team members here in Pontiac, Michigan. One building or really two buildings connected by a bridge to an awesome campus. Obviously in COVID-19, you know, most people are working from home but besides that we’re here together as a team and as a family. We’re the number two overall mortgage company in the country right behind Rocket Mortgage and we’re the number one wholesale lender, which is our sector, for six consecutive years. So we’ve passed all the big players that have been there, we’re proud of what we’ve done and as you said, at the beginning, it’s not Mat doing this, it’s that I have a great team of people, I got 8,500 amazing people, I have great leaders around me, they all make me look a lot better than I really am, which works out good for me.

That’s really who I am and what I’m about, I’m a single father of three children, I have a 10, seven and six year old boy girl boy and coach their sports on the weekends. Besides that, that’s all I do. I work and I play with my kids and, and live life.

 

WHAT WAS INSTILLED IN YOU TO TAKE ON RESPONSIBILITY AND TO BUILD SOMETHING THAT HAS TURNED INTO SUCH A SUCCESS?

Yeah, so a couple things. One, my father and I are so close, we’ve been close my whole life, my brother, my mother, my mother, I have a great family, I’m very lucky and blessed to be part of the family with them. Everything’s great with that, but the difference between me and most others is a lot of times you go work for your uncle, your brother, but my dad doesn’t work here, he never worked here, he happened to own it, but there’s people that were running the company that I worked for, I reported to those people. My father never has an office here, even since when I bought the company from he’s never had one then before or after. He’s an attorney, he’s great. He’s just a serial entrepreneur.

So that’s maybe a little different dynamic, that when other people come into work for their father or brother, or mother, that they’re there all day, every day. It was kind of a separate thing and I wasn’t really connected with him on a on an hourly or daily basis, if you think of it that way.

 

YOU’RE BUILDING OUT THE OPPORTUNITY FOR PEOPLE TO NOT JUST BUY A HOUSE, BUT TO BUILD A HOME WITHIN THAT HOUSE. WHERE DID THAT THINKING COME FROM?

Yeah, so absolutely. So a couple things there so you know, obviously the first few years that I just got the company, those are the boom years.

But, you know, to give my father credit, you know, when I got there, he said “Hey, listen, we don’t do all mortgages, we’re not doing loans that make a commission, like we’re gonna only lend to people that can pay us back.” So we’ve really never gotten above ball with the subprime. It was just one of the things I get my father’s most credit towards, because I didn’t know any better back then when he said, no, don’t do those loans, stick to conventional and FHA and VA loans.

So all those boom years, we actually weren’t doing that much business, we are struggling. And then when the crash hit all the companies that were doing the wrong type of loans, not doing things the right way focused on making money rather than doing right, they all went away and then companies like us were sitting there saying, okay, now there’s an opportunity to grow and capitalize. We take our job very seriously. As I said, we’re the number two overall mortgage company in America, you know, one out of every 20 loans in America comes here. So we’re making the American Dream come true in a lot of respects, and we have to do a heck of a job every single day make the process smooth. You know, I joke about it, that I’m the mortgage business, I’m going to run a pretty large company where nobody wants my product, nobody wants a mortgage, they want the house, you know.

We have to make the process fast, easy and cheap, and if I can’t do that, they don’t want to be associated with me if it takes 60 days, and it’s honkey. No one wants to deal with that, so we make fast, easy, cheap processes. So that was the game plan. The strategy was how do we really serve this and now we really know our place in America where, so many mortgages are going through UWM and people can’t buy the house and UWM is here to help and make that process smooth and efficient. So we’re proud of that opportunity. It really is a rallying cry for 500 people because it’s not like we’re selling water bottles. We’re making impact every day.

 

THE FACT THAT TWO OF THE LARGEST MORTGAGE COMPANIES ARE BASED IN MICHIGAN, WHERE DOES THAT FIT WITHIN YOUR MINDSET IN HAVING A COMPETITOR AS A NEIGHBOR?  

I think a couple of a ties. There’s a lot of great hard working people in Metro Detroit, and that midwest mentality of hard work with a positive attitude. I think that’s helped drive both our mortgage company and, Rocket Mortgage downtown. You know, they’re number one, we’re number two, right now, I have a lot of goals, I’m very competitive, you’ll figure that out about me. I don’t have written on my board, if you walk into my office that says “be the number two, overall mortgage company,” it’s not one of the goals. So we will become number one, it’s just a matter of when, and to grind every day to get there.

When we get to number one, we’ll continue to work towards that every day, but we’ll never sacrifice who we are. I tell people this all the time. There’s people who said, hey, if you do this, you can become number one, right? I said, Listen, we’re not doing the same type of loans. I’m not doing low credit score loans or riskier loans that may be Rocket Mortgage, or other companies might do. That’s not who we are, I’d rather be number 38 and do it the right way than be number one, and maybe not. So we’re going to do it the right way. We’ve always done it and we’re going to keep working every day to grow our business.

  

HOW DOES GETTING A HOME LOAN HAPPEN THROUGH UWM? 

If people want to get a mortgage, the key messaging is go to find a mortgage broker, mortgage brokers are cheaper than retail. This is not an opinion, this is fact. You can go to Wells Fargo, call Chase, call Rocket Mortgage, you call Johnny Smith mortgage broker, even after Johnny Smith mortgage broker is paid, he’s lower rate than all three of those lenders, no questions asked. Not even a discussion, everyone knows.

So if you go to a broker, you’re going to get it cheaper. Then the job is to be the fastest, easiest option for the mortgage broker. A lot of times the broker doesn’t bring it to us, that’s okay. But the broker can do it cheaper and cheaper is important, because you don’t want to pay too much on a mortgage, it’s probably the biggest payment you will make every month.

But also people don’t want to be go through a headache at different times of going back and looking for tax returns and these things. So find a mortgage broker dot com is where you go, you might end up with us, you might end up with other lenders. But the key is, you need to make it fast, easy and cheap, and the broker is cheaper. For what we focus on is how to make it seamless, fast and easy. Because it already is cheap if you come through the wholesale channel, which is what we do.

 

FOR OTHER ENTREPRENEURS, WALK US THROUGH WHAT HAPPENS IN THE ORGANIZATION IN ORDER TO EXECUTE ON INNOVATION? 

There’s two things I would say, first thing is we have a process here we call Brilliant Ideas, where we want our team members to challenge the ‘why’ ask questions, come up with new ideas. Because we’ve got 8,500 people, I’m not coming up with all these ideas, we all have great people that come up with these ideas. So how do we get the ideas from our team members? For example, there’s one broker that said this, could we do it this way? That’s one way we go through it, then there’s a Brilliant Ideas process where we get ideas from our team members and our clients and tell us what we can do better, to give us ideas.

Then on top of it, what I would recommend for other leaders, and what I feel one of my strengths along with my leadership, is staying in the weeds of the business. I am not, you know, 30,000 feet up, I’m not even 10,000 feet up, I’m on the ground level, I walk and ask our clients ‘What’s going on?’ I talk to our team members and I see, I don’t ask the leader, the VP of sales, I ask the sales rep, who’s been here seven months, ‘So why isn’t that broker using us what they say? Who do they use, why they use them?’ You have to be in the weeds of your business, to actually figure out what you need, and you have to truly understand what your customer wants.

So if you’re in the weeds, and you know what your customer wants, you’ll find that out, and then you’ll be able to deliver it. Then we innovate, we have over 1000 tech people here, we’re building stuff all day by ourselves, not waiting for some vendor to come out with it. We come up with our own stuff that helps differentiate our clients or differentiate ourselves to our clients.

 

WAS THERE A TURNING POINT WHEN YOU KNEW YOU WERE READY FOR GROWTH?

There’s a couple different decisions and things we made that kind of helped push the trajectory of our company to the level that we’re at today. But one of the things that you’re maybe referencing, one of the things back then was to stay in our business lanes, and we made the decision to say, ‘Hey, we’re only going to do one thing. Wholesale.’

Most of our competitors, they do retail, they do wholesale, they do a lot of things and they try to be everything to everyone or good at a lot instead of the best at one. We said listen, can we change the dynamic? We decided that the best place for a consumer to get a mortgage was through a mortgage broker, so the end consumer should go to the broker. So let’s put all of our resources towards that and go all in. Then what we found was this singular focus for the company when we’re not distracted. I’m not sitting here, ‘oh, should we open up a title company? What else?’

I’m singular focus on dominating this channel. Let’s get 8,500 people focused on one thing and that singular focus has really, I think, catapulted our business and helped us. I think if I reflect back, the understanding what the end consumer wants was best for them and best for the loan officers. We made that decision and then we went all in on it and, and it’s okay to be wrong, but the way I look at it, I’m going a million miles per hour at the decision I make, if I make the wrong one, I’ll turn and change. Sometimes people sit there and kind of, well, what about this? What if this happened and start thinking about 88 other things. So the singular focus was a big deal.

 

ARE YOU DRIVEN BY GUT INSTINCT OR BY DATA?

Yeah, it’s definitely not data. So my team will laugh if they see me, I go with what I feel. I know the data and I get involved with things, but I’m instinctual, and I’m in the weeds of the business. So I’m really focused what our clients need and what our team members need. And I make decisions very quickly, I decide quick, and we go. We do not sit here and talk about it for nine months, we’ll talk about it, but it’s like 19 minutes, and then we’re going with a new idea in a different direction and we’re going to try and if it’s wrong, we’ll switch back.

So I have data, we look at data, but the reality is one of the big lessons I’ve learned is, when I became CEO, and I made the decision we’re going all in wholesale. I had our warehouse partners, all these big mega banks, every one of them said, you can’t do that, the broker channel is only 13% of the business, you’re missing out on 87%. I said, ‘Well, we’ll grow it.’

The reality is that was the right decision, but everyone said we were going the wrong way, they thought that we should have been diversified. My instinct was that’s best for the consumer, you have the confidence to make that decision and it’s okay to be wrong, but we weren’t wrong on that one.

So the mortgage market is 80% through wholesale. Quicken Loans, Rocket Mortgage, play in the whole 100% they get home, we only play in the 20%. So as our channel grows at 30, or 35%, we have a massive market share, we’re the largest in our space. If you think of it that way as 20% grows, we’re going to keep going with it, so that’s part of the strategy where everyone else has already kind of had an end game, they have the whole pie, they’re playing it and they are who they are, we have a chance to grow our pie.

 

DID YOU HAVE A GOAL TO GO PUBLIC WITH YOUR COMPANY?

The goal is to win today and then win again tomorrow. Of course, I set some goals and we set some big, pretty lofty goals that we beat really, really handily. I’m real big on setting a goal, set it out for this year, set it out for three years, and then work your butt off every day, stay in the weeds, and then look up and see where you’re at. We went well beyond it. There was never a time, even if you wanted to go back two years ago or three years ago 2018, that I ever said we would ever go public or ever even get to a $100 billion level, and we did $182 billion in 2020. We never even imagined being in this at this level. It wasn’t part of the plan, it still isn’t part of the plan. The plan is just to win today get better today, what can I do to move and gain an edge today to get us better?

 

WHAT ARE THE TWO THINGS THAT YOU LOOK FOR IN LEADERS?

First off, in order to have a great team, you got to be a great leader, you got to treat people the right way. You have to care about people you got to you got to show them that you care so that they care about you and the business as well. Work ethic and attitude is a given and we require that. That’s all I ask of our 8,500 people. You can have your right work ethic, you then drive and grind and want to get better and you have a positive attitude. I don’t care if you went to college, or you went to high school you didn’t graduate from anywhere. Doesn’t matter to me, all I care about is work ethic and attitude. Then to take it to the leadership level, you have to be so in tune with your team and the processes, while being in the weeds of your business, like we talked about earlier, is so key. You have to be all in, you got to be all in for UWM. If you want to lead people that have a positive attitude, work ethic, we talked about that, but you got to say, listen, we’re going all in, we’re going to make this happen, we’re going figure it out together as a team, because people glean that from you if you’re not. On top of that, you have to be a great communicator and collaborator. So communicate and collaborate, great work ethic and attitude is required. But being in the weeds are things that we think about.

 

WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITHIN PONTIAC OR DETROIT ON THE GIVING SIDE?

Just always doing right by the community. Supporting Pontiac and Metro Detroit. How do we make an impact in this area? As team members do great work, they get pay it forward points, and then they can pick where our charity money goes to a different, they’re passionate about a veterinary clinic, these guys are passionate about homeless be whatever it may be.

During the pandemic, a small thing we’ve been doing, we saw so many of our friends and family members that own restaurants or ball with restaurants been struggling. So we were just buying, a couple $1,000 a day of food from restaurants, and delivering them to homeless shelters, and just trying to help two groups at once. And then we expanded that to where now, you know, we got so much support from that there’s so many more people want to, or need help. And so we’re helping more and more.

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS FOR BUSINESSES IN THE PANDEMIC? HOW SHOULD PEOPLE BE LOOKING AT THE FUTURE OF THEIR BUSINESS?

What I think about is, what the pandemic showed us is that things come out of nowhere, you have to be prepared for it when starting a business, you got to be involved with it, and you got to know your stuff inside out. Because you know what, things can sucker punch you. COVID sucker punched everybody, no one was expecting it. I don’t have a COVID-19 plan at the company. So how are you prepared for the random things, and the way you win that stuff is by being so in the weeds and so connected to your client.

So for business people, whether you’re starting a business, or you’re building a business, or you already have a great business is what is the end consumer paying you for? What do they really want? And then this is around that and I do the same thing because, you know, I could even argue that we have three consumers, the consumer, I understand that then my actual customer, the broker who works with me, but then my team members, I have 8,500 people without those people I have no shot and so I literally think about those three sections. So focus on the consumer, your consumer and do what they need and what they’re paying you for. If you can deliver that you’re going to end up winning.

 

WHAT THREE INNOVATIVE THINGS ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT AS YOU START YOUR DAY AS ADVISE FOR ENTREPRENEURS AND LEADERS AND BUSINESS OWNERS IN THE IN THE AREA? 

  1. From an innovative perspective, you have to have your alone time. You need to time to get focused, get your grind time and think about things.
  2. Be so tied into your consumer and the weeds of your business, do not think that you can just assume. There is nothing I’m not involved with, I know what’s going on.
  3. Be innovative and be involved, that’s how you will get your ideas.
  4. Be positive. There are a lot of tough things in the world, but I choose to focus on the great ones. Positivity is a big deal. I’m not down on anything. You can tell me a lot of things, I’m going to be pretty positive about almost everything that comes my way.

This interview was edited for brevity.

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