Mark Cohn

The Damark International founder has filled three professional sabbaticals with mentoring.
Mark Cohn

When Mark Cohn was building his business career, he could have used a mentor. The founder of five Minnesota companies, Cohn describes himself as self-trained, having little more than “a group of men who challenged me over the years and devoted a lot of time to me.”

One of the companies he founded, catalog retailer Damark International, began in 1986 and grew to be among the largest public companies in Minnesota, with revenue of $600 million. “I was a salesman who had to learn how to be a businessman,” Cohn says. “Then I had a whole bunch of people following me and I had to learn to be a CEO.” Nothing in his career till then, he adds, “prepared me for that.”

Since the 1990s, Cohn has been providing the kind of help he didn’t always get. He began mentoring entrepreneurs and leaders in the 1990s and kicked the effort into high gear after his “third retirement” (from Dorado, a sea-floor exploration and mining business) in 2011. (His other breaks were after Damark, in 2000, and Second Act, an e-commerce company he founded, in 2009.)

“Mentoring delivers perspective you might not otherwise get,” says Cohn, who also has served on several boards, including Plymouth-based women’s clothing retailer Christopher & Banks. The best mentoring, he adds, happens by sharing experiences—particularly failures and disappointments, which are the life experiences that engender the most insight. He advises mentors to “give selflessly, but avoid proscription.”

The approach is endorsed by one of Cohn’s current mentees, Darin Lynch, founder and CEO of Edina-based digital agency Irish Titan. The company, which employs 21, specializes in e-commerce, website building, and custom digital marketing and strategy.

Cohn and Lynch met in the spring of 2014. “We had been circling around each other at some recurring networking events, then worked together in our conference room to help one of our mutual business friends talk through her business strategy,” Lynch recalls. “I must have at least seemed somewhat worthy of his time during that brainstorming session, because we started to meet after that, and that’s when the mentoring began.”

Cohn describes Lynch as “eager to improve, able to admit things he doesn’t understand, truly inquisitive,” and valuing the insights of an experienced entrepreneur and leader. Lynch describes the time of that first meeting with Cohn as “a period of acute growth pains in Irish Titan’s short history. He gave freely of his time and wisdom, sharing experiences along with knowledge learned.”

Lynch adds that “with Mark’s help, I was able to improve not only my leadership skills, but my organizational management approach. Compensation strategies, operating procedures, go-to-market initiatives and personnel leadership all underwent massive changes. Those changes allowed Irish Titan to weather growth pains and emerge as a more mature and scalable organization. That was possible only because of Mark’s guidance and mentoring.”

Case in point: “Mark’s guidance helped me structure our strategic performance plan, which is, at its heart, a profit-sharing plan,” Lynch says. “But Mark encouraged me to think of it as more than that, and challenged me to identify what I was really trying to accomplish with the program.”

In talking with Cohn, Lynch adds, “I realized that this plan was strategic in nature, and its true intention is to align employee performance with company goals,” thus making it more than a garden-variety bonus system. Lynch says Cohn also helped him troubleshoot the actual mechanics of the program, such as the gating thresholds and distribution triggers. The new plan took effect at the beginning of this year, and Lynch says it’s already shown demonstrable results: “In fact, it’s something I’m disappointed in not having instituted earlier.”

Cohn is quick to note that the essential step in being mentored is to make time and mental room for it. “You’re never going to have growth without the capacity for reflection,” he says. “And leaders need to allow themselves that opportunity.”

Working with entrepreneurs and innovators is something Cohn has found engaging and energizing as he gets back into the CEO game as head of Aspirity Corp., a Twin Cities-based retail energy provider. “Darin will call up and we’ll talk about an idea he has or a problem to solve,” Cohn says. “And a few months will go by and I’ll hear from him again. It’s just a joy for me.”