THE ENTREPRENEURS

Pittsburgh-based firm started small, grew into a U.S. job creator


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Fourteen years after Chuck Sanders opened a small storefront in Bellevue providing title and settlement services to people buying houses, that single business has mushroomed into a nationwide empire of about 13 companies, with some 2,400 employees and annual revenues this year that will be in the neighborhood of $200 million.

His flagship company, Urban Lending Solutions, headquartered Downtown in the Federated Investors Tower, provides back office support servicing mortgages for major financial institutions such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and SunTrust.

New York-based Inc. magazine, which publishes an annual list of the 500 fastest growing companies in the U.S., this year ranked Urban Lending Solutions as the eighth-top job creator in the U.S. for creating 1,022 new jobs within the prior 18 months. Black Enterprise Magazine, known for its annual list of the country's largest African-American owned firms, ranked ULS the nation's 16th largest with 2012 revenue of $183.5 million.

But Mr. Sanders also has ownership in several other real estate-related companies as well as entertainment projects and restaurants, including the Savoy nightclub in the Strip District, which opened in May 2012.

"When I started Urban Lending, the goal was to start a business, get it running, make some money and feed my family," said Mr. Sanders, 49. "I've been blessed. This business has been making money for a while.

"But when that was up and going, I wanted to do something else, and then something else. So, that entrepreneurial itch is always driving me everyday."

A former Steeler, Mr. Sanders played from 1986-87 as a running back. After his brief NFL career, Mr. Sanders worked for a while in marketing for a semi-pro basketball team, before he decided to get on the high road to financial success in America -- entrepreneurship.

The dream of being his own boss was greatly inspired by his father, Charles Sanders, who owned Sanders Trucking in Homewood, and his mother, the Rev. RoseMarie Sanders, who owned a Christian bookstore.

"There was always some form of business around my house," he said. "Everything I am I get from my father and my mother. The main thing I remember is that everybody came to my dad as the guy who could help out. I just admired him so much."

In those days, there was no ADP payroll service or anything like that. The men who worked for his father lined up for their paychecks Fridays.

"They all stopped to see my dad to get their paycheck," he said. "It was always in a little brown envelope.

"My dad would always talk to his workers about their families and what was going on. I grew up watching my father being an entrepreneur. So, I was always thinking that's what you do -- create jobs and be that person in the community that people can come to."

When Mr. Sanders started his own company, formerly called Urban Settlement Services, in 1999, he signed every check and knew every employee. After reaching the 100-employee mark, he realized he didn't know everyone on his staff anymore and he couldn't possibly sign every payroll check.

"I really trust a lot of my people," he said. "I've got some great people who run all the different departments."

Although his business enterprises consume much of his time and attention, Mr. Sanders describes himself as a husband and father first and foremost. He has been married for 16 years to Elisa Sanders. They live in Franklin Park and have three boys ages 15, 13 and 8.

As for a typical day in his world, it revolves around family and a few key top assistants.

"When I wake up in the morning, my day is set around what the boys are doing," he said. "They are all in sports, so I've got to handle that whole piece.

"The first thing I say to my wife is 'I love you.' The second thing I ask is, 'What's the schedule? Who do I need to pick up? Where do I have to be?' All of this doesn't mean anything if you're not spending time being at that soccer match or that football match or practice."

He has a conversation every morning with his top three assistants. He also talks to all the heads of his different departments. They give him a broad update on what's going on for that week.

"They know I'm not going to care how many staples we ordered for the Denver office," he said. "It's going to be key things they see happening with a project, updates on projects and big wins. I'm always going to be concerned about whether we are meeting our customer's expectations as far as delivery.

"We are in the big business of banks coming to us for mortgage information. They need mortgages, titles, and closing by a certain time. Every day we get orders and reports, and I see the score cards. My biggest thing is, are we meeting our contractual obligations to all our banks and customers? Are we getting orders back to them in time, and is it quality work? That's my biggest No. 1."

His first business -- by far the largest -- is helping launch his other companies. The money from Urban Lending Solutions feeds a lot of the others, he said.

Some of his smaller companies include Mile Hi Entertainment, which is a movie and TV production company based in Denver; The Fever Co., a Philadelphia-based business that produces and markets an energy drink; Prodovis Mortgage, a Pittsburgh company that provides title products and services for the banking industry; Realty Data Co., a Chicago-based company that sells deed information to banks; and Walled Lake Credit Bureau, a Denver company that provides credit for mortgage companies.

Mr. Sanders also owns and operates a Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant called The Mint; a New York restaurant called The Darby; and a Pittsburgh-based staffing company called Black Knight LLC.

"We are fortunate right now that over 60 percent of the businesses we run are profitable," Mr. Sanders said.

"But the others are still in the growing stages. So, Urban Lending Solutions has to be first because that fuels those four or five that are still growing. Our No. 1 thing is, how is Urban doing? And are our banks happy?"

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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