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From Benchwarmer To Billionaire: Spartan Mat Ishbia

Mat Ishbia photo
Courtesy photo
United Wholesale Mortgage
Mat Ishbia was a walk-on member of MSU's 2000 national championship team. His company, United Wholesale Mortgage, is about to go public.

UPDATED AT 10:15 a.m. FRIDAY, JANUARY 22, 2021: Mat Ishbia's company, United Wholesale Mortgage, went public at 9:30 a.m. Ishbia rang the bell to open the trading day on the New York Stock Exchange.

It’s been 20 years since the Michigan State University men’s basketball team won the national championship. Three players on that team went on to the riches of being first round NBA draft picks.

The player enjoying the most success after college, though, never played a minute of professional basketball.

Mat Ishbia was a pretty good high school basketball player and was recruited by smaller colleges. But he wasn’t good enough to earn a scholarship at what he calls the school of his dreams, Michigan State. So, he walked on to the team, working in practice with Spartan legends like Mateen Cleaves, Jason Richardson and Morris Peterson.

Ishbia recalls only sparingly getting into games when the team had an insurmountable lead. “I always tell people I had to be the hardest working player, get in early, stay late, to be the worst player on that team, and that’s how it always was," said Ishbia. "I was proud to be part of the team.”

After Ishbia’s playing days were over, he went to work for United Wholesale Mortgage, a company his attorney father had founded as a side business. There were only about a dozen employees when he got there in 2003. Under his leadership, UWM now employs almost 7,000 people. His methods have included encouraging the creation of in-house technology.

With that growth, UWM plans to go public in a few months. Bloomberg recently reported that at $10-dollars a share, Ishbia’s stake will be worth more than $11-billion dollars. That would make him the 51st richest American.

Ishbia said he doesn’t pay much attention to numbers like that, instead keeping his focus on further growth.

He tries to emulate the work ethic of his MSU coach, Hall of Famer Tom Izzo.  “I get in the office between four and five in the morning every day, and I outwork everyone," continued Ishbia. "I figure there’s a lot of CEO’s in the mortgage business that are smarter than me, and a lot of them that have more money than me, but none of them are going to put in more time and effort to be greater than I am, and so I learned that from Izzo, along with it’s all about team.”

“It’s a little surprising how well he’s done…but not a lot surprising.” MSU Basketball coach Tom Izzo, on former player Mat Ishbia

Tom Izzo photo
MSU men's basketball coach Tom Izzo discusses former player Mat Ishbia via Zoom.

Coach Tom Izzo said he let Ishbia on the team because he was the kind of passionate kid he likes having around. Izzo said there are similarities, but also some distinctions, between running a business and running a top-level basketball program.

Izzo stated, “we’ve got our players, they’ve got their workers; we’ve got our recruits, they’ve got their clients. They’ve got people to please, although I told Mat he’s got to please himself and his dad and the workers there; I’ve got to please 500,000 living alums. He’s got a little more money involved than I do too, though, so I guess it’s a tradeoff."

Ishbia was paying attention during his playing days, and he hung around as a student assistant coach for another year before heading to the business world. He said Izzo also taught him how to hold people accountable, "and we try to do that at our company. I want to have the best receptionist. They don’t have to be the best CEO, they have to be their best at answering the phone with a friendly message, right? Same thing with underwriters, our sales people. Everyone’s got to be their role, and my job as the leader is to put great people around me and then hold people accountable for being the best version of themselves.”

“I knew he (Mat Ishbia) was one of those people you knew, whatever he decided to do, he was going to be successful at. My first thing was just he would have been a great coach if that’s what he wanted to do.” Mateen Cleeves, captain of the national championship team in 2000 at Michigan State. Cleeves now works for Ishbia's company, United Wholesale Mortgage

Several former Spartan teammates now work at Ishbia’s company, including the captain of that 2000 championship team, Mateen Cleaves, where he’s a leadership coach. Cleaves insists working for a guy he used to lead on the basketball court is not a role reversal “because we don’t work for Mat, we work with Mat, and that’s words that come out of his mouth," said Cleaves. "He makes that perfectly clear, not only us, but the other 7,000 team members that we have here. We work together.”

Cleaves said you don’t have to have a background in sports to learn from the teamwork and family atmosphere created by both Tom Izzo and Mat Ishbia.

So, about those billions. Ishbia demurs, but he said he’s excited about going public and hopes to take the business “to a whole new level. We’re pretty proud of where we’re at, but at the same time, we’re just getting started to where we want to go.”

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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