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Mark Cohon on what it takes to succeed

From running the CFL to spearheading a new spirits brand, the Canadian entrepreneur has a few things to say on what it takes to build a successful business.

The word ‘entrepreneur’ is commonly thought to describe someone in business. In reality, it describes an individual with or operating one or more businesses who takes on greater than a normal amount of risk in order to do so.

Mark Cohon understands that definition well; he’s lived it. The 52-year-old sports and entertainment executive has an impressive professional pedigree that has seen its own share of highs and lows. In the sports world, Cohon’s career trajectory includes stints at Major League Baseball International (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the Canadian Football League (CFL), where he served as commissioner for eight years. During his tenure at the CFL, ratings dramatically increased, corporate partnerships were strengthened, and over $2 billion was secured for new stadiums.

Today, Cohon serves as the Chairman of Toronto Global (an agency funded by three levels of government to promote and attract foreign direct investment) and partner at Georgian Bay Spirits Company, one of Canada’s fastest growing craft spirits businesses focused currently on gin and vodka.  
It would be fair to say that across the span of his prolific career, Cohon has learned a few lessons along the way. From leading a sports category to learning from failure, the Toronto entrepreneur sheds light on what it takes to really succeed in business today.

Ask a lot of questions
I think the best way to figure out a problem is by asking a lot of questions. When I was at the CFL, I really forced a discipline of saying, ‘what do we really stand for as a league? Where are we strong? Where are we weak?’ I asked those questions for my first 100 days, and then we came out with our position. I did the same thing when I got involved with Georgian Bay Spirit Company. My partners and I sat down and said, ‘okay we know the consumers are reacting well to gin spritzers [because] they’re flying off the shelves, but what are the problems in the business, and what do we need to shore up?

Be with the consumer
If you want to be consumer-driven people, you have to be with the consumer. When I was commissioner, I wasn’t just sitting in sky boxes, I was in the stands. I was doing things where I interacted. I had Twitter interactions all the time and was the first commissioner in North America to actually have a State of the League for the media every year. Then I would invite 1000 fans to grill me for an hour. I remember one night I was in Saskatchewan and did a tweet up where I just said, “Hey, I’m going to be at this local bar. The first 200 people to show up I’ll buy the first round.”

Eat or be eaten
It depends on the space that you’re in but competition plays a big role. [McDonald’s businessman] Ray Kroc had a great quote. He said, ‘if my competition was drowning I would put a fire hose down their throat.’ It’s a little tough for today’s day and age, but I believe that competitive juice you have on the basketball court, hockey rink, or football field [is something] you have to bring into business. You’ve got to win, and you’ve got to want to win. 

Build an all-star team
When I got involved with Georgian Bay, there were two co-founders, Denzil [Wadds] and Tim [Keenleyside]. I said that the first thing we have to do is build an amazing team, and that’s exactly what we did. We went out there and found the best marketing people, the best finance people, the best production people, and the best sales people. You really have to build an amazing team, and make sure to hire slow and fire fast. That’s where I see the correlation in sports. I would consider myself a quarterback who relies on the best offensive lineman, the best wide receiver, and the best defensive back. You put the best people in those roles and trust their abilities. 

Lead with authenticity
One of the most important things for a brand is authenticity. For Georgian Bay, the phone number on the back of our bottles is my partner and CEO’s number. He’ll get consumers calling with a suggestion or complaint and talk to them. People see authenticity through leadership whether it’s the value of saying ‘I’m going to be there for the consumer,’ ‘I’m going to be very open,’ or ‘I’m going to be very transparent.’ You have to live those things. If you don’t live the values of your company, you don’t live your brand, and you’re dead in the water. People will instantaneously see through you if you don’t.

Don’t get distracted by the hype
When I left the NBA, I wanted to pursue my passion for wildlife and animals. So I went to San Francisco during the height of the internet [boom] and got involved with a company called Petopia, which was part-owned by Petco. During that time, the poster child for a bad IPO was our competitor, Pets.com. In 2000, the markets crashed and we were about to go public. We had raised tens of millions of dollars and ran out of money. The learning from that was to not get caught up in the hype. You have to really stick to your knitting because the business model we had being part owned by a major retailer [allowed us to] leverage all their buying and distribution power. Had we stayed the course and not rushed to go public, we’d probably be a very successful business today. Even though the world’s moving very fast, make sure you stick to your guns and don’t get distracted too much from what’s really driving your success.

Be a great communicator
If there is one thing that a leader should do or be great at, and not enough people do this because they hide behind their screens, is communication. [As a leader] you are rallying people, whether it’s internally or externally, around your business, brand, and product. You have to think of it as an ongoing campaign and continue to communicate and be transparent with people. That is a real important quality of leadership that too many people forget. There are some leaders who are exceptionally smart – smarter than everyone else in the room – and some leaders who are unbelievable sales people and can close any deal. But consistently across the board, I think you have to be able to communicate openly, clearly, and authentically with a passion, and tackle issues right away. You can’t let things fester in companies because then they become big issues, and that is about communication.