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Billionaire mortgage battle: Inside the owner rivalry of Cavs’ Dan Gilbert and Suns’ Mat Ishbia

JUST AFTER 9 A.M. on Feb. 9, 2023, Mat Ishbia stepped onto a small stage in the first-floor pavilion of the Phoenix Suns’ Footprint Center and stared out at hundreds of Suns employees. Ishbia had addressed them for about 15 minutes the morning prior, just before he was formally introduced to the media as the team’s new majority owner. But, for the team’s employees, these remarks would serve as a more substantive meet-and-greet — and a chance to hear his vision.

Music and good vibes permeated the room, and Ishbia was greeted by applause. The then-43-year-old exuded excitement, reveling in his new role and the franchise’s blockbuster Kevin Durant trade that he had helped pull off hours earlier.

Speaking at a frenetic pace, Ishbia thanked employees for showing up and said he hoped to keep the morning’s session — which would include a PowerPoint presentation — to just 60 minutes. Then, Ishbia shared more about his background.

“I run a mortgage company in Michigan,” he said, according to team sources, a reference to United Wholesale Mortgage, of which Ishbia is CEO and chairman. “We’re the largest mortgage company in America. We built it from 12 people to 7,000 people.”

Ishbia moved on to other subjects, such as his disbelief in 70-hour work weeks. “You don’t live to work,” he said. “You work to live.”

Ishbia referenced aspirations of the Suns being not just a great franchise in the NBA but in all of sports, specifically citing the New England Patriots. “Not just on the football side, but also on the business side and what the Krafts have done,” he said.

And time and again, the presentation circled back to mortgages and UWM.

“We’re the No. 1 mortgage company in America,” Ishbia repeated. “The No. 2 mortgage company is a sponsor here, which won’t be lasting long.” Laughter broke out among employees.

Less than a week into his new role in the NBA, Ishbia had just introduced Suns employees to the inner sanctum of a yearslong rivalry that consumed him.

Ishbia, of course, was referencing Rocket Mortgage, another Michigan-based lending giant run by an NBA owner: the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Dan Gilbert. (Both men declined interview requests for this story.)

And, indeed, at the time, Rocket Mortgage held a sponsorship for the Suns worth roughly $490,000, a source with knowledge of the deal told ESPN. It wasn’t an especially large partnership in terms of dollar value, the source said, adding that it wasn’t in the top 10 for the team that season and was set to expire in a matter of months. But sources close to Ishbia say there was no way he would allow Rocket Mortgage to be represented inside the Suns’ arena, or with the team, in any capacity.

A collegial conversation ensued between the companies, those sources say. Both sides acknowledged that Rocket wouldn’t be doing business with the Suns while Ishbia owned them, just as the Cavaliers wouldn’t do business with UWM while Gilbert owned the team. And, just like that, the sponsorship deal with the Suns ended early. (Rocket Mortgage and the Suns declined to comment on the deal.)

But, for Ishbia, the move served as payback. Just three days before he mentioned the Rocket sponsorship to Suns employees, the NBA board of governors approved Ishbia’s ownership of the Suns by a 29-0 vote.

The only abstention: Gilbert.

This season marks Ishbia’s first full campaign as the Suns’ owner, and injuries to his star players have sunk once-lofty expectations. The Suns hold a 44-31 record as the playoffs approach and at No. 7 in the West are fighting to avoid the Western Conference play-in tournament.

Gilbert’s Cavaliers, meanwhile, hold the league’s seventh-best overall record and appear poised for a strong postseason run, currently No. 3 in the Eastern Conference.

When the teams met March 11 in Cleveland, the Suns prevailed 117-111 with Ishbia in attendance. Round 2 comes Wednesday night in Phoenix (10 p.m. ET on ESPN).

The two men share Michigan roots: Gilbert in Detroit, Ishbia in Birmingham, a suburb some 20 miles north. They share the same alma mater: Michigan State. And, today, their two Michigan-based companies are separated by about a half-hour’s drive, with UWM’s headquarters in Pontiac and Rocket Mortgage’s in downtown Detroit.

Their professional paths diverge at key points, namely because Gilbert is 18 years Ishbia’s senior. Gilbert’s net worth stands at $21.3 billion, while Ishbia’s is $6.7 billion, according to Forbes. But, in recent years, their mortgage giants have fiercely battled for supremacy.

The public vitriol has been a one-sided affair, with Ishbia lobbing numerous attacks against Rocket, including in a 2020 Super Bowl commercial. Gilbert, on the other hand, has avoided the fray. Rocket executives have taken the lead on publicly countering Ishbia’s remarks, questioning UWM’s business tactics and calling Ishbia a “playground bully.” The feud continues.

“He doesn’t like me,” Ishbia said on Bill Simmons’ podcast in May 2023, “and I don’t like him.”

ISHBIA WAS 23 years old, working in a windowless closet.

It was 2003, and instead of taking a job on the men’s basketball staff at Cleveland State, he joined his father’s mortgage company. It was a side gig for his father, Jeffrey, a lawyer who founded it in 1985, and it remained a small operation: Ishbia was its 12th employee. He made $18,000 in his first year, largely grabbing faxes off a machine and taking them to mortgage underwriters. The company’s first office was 1,200 square feet. They upgraded to a vacant grocery store, and loans were written in what was once a frozen foods aisle.

This same year, 2003, Gilbert sat atop an empire nearly two decades in the making. Starting in 1985, when he was 22 and, thanks to $5,000 he saved delivering pizzas in college, Gilbert founded a brick-and-mortar Michigan mortgage company that would eventually become a pioneer of online lending and one of the largest independent mortgage banks in the country. In 1998, it closed about $2.3 billion in residential loans and had about 600 employees. In 1999, the software giant Intuit bought it for $370 million. Just three years later, Gilbert and a group of investors bought it back for $64 million, with Intuit retaining a 12.5% equity stake. In 2005, Gilbert paid $375 million for the Cavaliers.

The two companies weren’t close in size and scope for many years, but UWM surged after the mid-2000s housing crisis, when several major banks exited the wholesale mortgage business. In 2013, Ishbia became UWM’s CEO.

Two years later, UWM became the No. 1 wholesale lender in the country, and Ishbia celebrated by hanging a “national champions” banner in the UWM lobby. The next goal was to become the top overall mortgage company in America — and that meant taking on Rocket.

The public warring emerged in 2018. That year, some of UWM’s employees were captured on surveillance video handing out flyers around Rocket’s downtown Detroit headquarters and Phoenix offices that disparaged the company’s business tactics, saying, in part, that the company paid outside brokers better than its in-house loan officers, according to the Detroit Free Press. Ishbia told the newspaper that he didn’t order it or know it was happening. Still, he defended the accuracy of the flyers.

In the same year, a campaign launched by the Association of Independent Mortgage Experts, a trade group that UWM sponsored, accused Rocket of stealing broker clients.

“It’s clear this initiative is a self-serving, smear campaign driven by [UWM] and its CEO Mat Ishbia, targeted at its largest competitors,” Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner told HousingWire then.

In 2019, UWM achieved $107.7 billion in mortgage loan volume, setting a wholesale industry record and more than doubling its 2018 total. It surpassed Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase to become the No. 2 overall mortgage lender, just behind Rocket, which closed $145 billion in mortgage volume that year behind a team of roughly 20,000 employees.

But UWM was growing. Between 2016 and 2019, it nearly tripled its workforce (reaching about 6,800), and in 2020, it bought an additional 900,000-square-foot office building to add to its 600,000-square-foot location in Pontiac.

That same year, UWM launched another barb — a 30-second Super Bowl ad showing a child lying on a skateboard, with a toy rocket strapped to his back.

“Playing with rockets is great when you’re a kid,” a narrator said. “But when it’s time to get a mortgage, you quickly realize that a rocket is complicated and expensive.”

Ishbia downplayed the ad, saying UWM and Rocket were friendly competitors.

That characterization dramatically changed just one year later.

THE RIVALRY BETWEEN UWM and Rocket reached new heights after an ultimatum from Ishbia.

“If you work with them, you can’t work with UWM anymore, effective immediately,” the UWM CEO said during a Facebook Live presentation for independent mortgage brokers on March 4, 2021.

Ishbia was referring to two companies: the Wisconsin-based Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp. and Rocket Mortgage. Though he didn’t accuse either of illegal activity, he claimed they were “hurting the wholesale channel” and putting “brokers out of business.” Ishbia’s comments came as Rocket had grown its wholesale channel from 3,000 to 10,000 brokers in a three-year span, a direct threat to UWM, which worked with about 12,000 brokers nationwide.

Ishbia also gave a deadline: If brokers wanted to continue working with UWM, they needed to sign an agreement within 11 days, by March 15, that they wouldn’t do business with Fairway or Rocket. Those who violated that agreement could be penalized $5,000 per loan in damages, UWM said.

In a statement, Rocket’s Chief Revenue Officer Austin Niemiec called the move desperate, saying, “This move from UWM is an act of fear from a company chasing one thing: money.”

The ultimatum was unprecedented. UWM, which had gone public in 2021, sued some brokers who violated what it called its “All-In” agreement. One Florida-based broker filed a class-action lawsuit in April 2021 against UWM, accusing it of violating antitrust laws. The complaint alleged that, in the wake of Ishbia’s ultimatum, “UWM, through its Account Executives, communicated to mortgage brokers, including Plaintiff and Class Members, false statements that denigrated Rocket Mortgage corporate officers and even went so far as to denigrate Rocket Mortgage Chairman, Dan Gilbert’s, health.”

The complaint didn’t offer any evidence to support its claim about false statements, nor did it mention Ishbia. Gilbert had suffered a stroke in 2019 but said the following year he was recovering.

On Feb. 9, 2024, the judge in that lawsuit recommended that it be dismissed; as of Tuesday, it remains ongoing. But the ripple effects from Ishbia’s ultimatum spread across the industry, with brokers saying it undercut their business.

Ishbia would be blamed for layoffs by at least one company, the California-based Prospect Home Finance, which laid off 50 employees a year later and cited Ishbia’s ultimatum as the driving factor.

Rocket later announced it would cover the costs of penalties and litigation for brokers who signed UWM’s agreement but still submitted loans to Rocket. It called this protection a “Bully Shield” — a reference to Ishbia.

“He uses his power to intimidate and coerce those with less power,” Rocket executive Mike Fawaz said at a company event. “He is the playground bully, taking the smaller kids’ lunch money every single day.”

Two months after the “bully” remarks, Bloomberg Business published a report detailing allegations from current and former UWM employees about racial disparities, sexual harassment and bullying inside UWM. In a statement, UWM disputed the report, calling it false and misleading.

An odd beneficiary in the back-and-forth between Ishbia’s UWM and Gilbert’s Rocket is their alma mater, Michigan State. In 2021, Ishbia pledged $32 million to the school’s athletics program. A month later, Gilbert’s company signed up to be the presenting sponsor for Michigan State basketball, meaning Rocket’s name and logo would be represented throughout the team’s arena and mentioned on team radio broadcasts.

Still, as interest rates rose and for-sale housing inventory fell, the mortgage market took a downturn. Layoffs started to spread. In March 2022, Alex Elezaj, UWM’s chief strategy officer, said the company — which had doubled its workforce since the COVID-19 pandemic to more than 8,000 — wouldn’t be doing any layoffs. One month later, Rocket offered voluntary buyouts, and Ishbia criticized the cutbacks in an April 2022 LinkedIn post, calling them “disgusting.”

“Even though United Wholesale Mortgage directly competes with Rocket, I hate seeing this type of negative impact on families in Metro Detroit,” Ishbia wrote, in part. “These 2,000+ people will struggle to find new jobs, and I think it’s disgusting that they’re thinking short term and are solely focused on cutting a few million per month in costs … This is the wrong thing to do to people.”

Jared Fleisher, vice president of government affairs for Rocket Companies — which oversees Rocket Mortgage — fired back in a comment to Ishbia’s post:

“Nobody asked me to write this,” Fleisher wrote. “Mr. Ishbia’s comments about ‘families in Metro Detroit’ is nothing but empty cynicism. There isn’t another company in Detroit or this country that can match Rocket’s record of philanthropy and community investment and service and overall commitment to its community. You sir have no such record to speak of.”

Roughly five months later, in November 2022, the now-publicly traded UWM announced its results for the third quarter: $325.6 million in net income on $33.5 billion in total loan origination volume. It had surpassed Rocket as the nation’s largest mortgage company.

“What we have said would happen has happened,” Ishbia said on an earnings call. “Maybe just maybe there really is one elite mortgage company in America. Maybe there’s one CEO and his leadership team that really is in the weeds of the business and knows the business better than the rest.”

In July 2023, roughly six months after Ishbia became the Suns’ majority owner, about 20 UWM employees attended the Rocket Mortgage Classic tournament at the Detroit Golf Club.

They were spotted wearing blue shirts with a patch:

“#1 Mortgage Lender In The Nation”

TODAY, GILBERT AND Ishbia live in the same suburb outside Detroit — roughly 15 minutes from each other — but a source close to Ishbia said the two have never crossed paths there.

Inside NBA board of governors meetings, the same source said, they’ve been cordial but have said little beyond hello.

“That’s as much as it gets,” the source told ESPN. “It’s not contentious.”

When asked for comment about the dynamics between Gilbert and Ishbia, Aaron Emerson, the chief communications officer for Rocket Companies, offered this response:

“As for the relationship between Dan and Mat, there is none,” Emerson wrote in an email to ESPN. “They have never met. From Dan’s perspective, there is no rivalry.”

Rivalry or no rivalry, the two feuding billionaires are intertwined. Even if Ishbia wanted to do away with any sponsorship from his biggest competitor inside the Suns’ arena, it’s a different story once he steps outside.

There, just one block north from the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix, an office building looms. Its signage, which is clearly visible from the front steps of the arena, announces the tenant that has called it home for years: Rocket Mortgage.

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