Mentor Spotlight: Mark Cohen

Mark Cohen and Michael Alameda

Michael Alameda and Mark Cohen at Old Westbury Golf and Country Club in Old Westbury, NY.

Mark Cohen grew up in a working-class family in Brighton & Hove, England, and came to New York in the early 1980s. Today he’s retired and serving as a mentor to Michael Alameda, a junior at the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Harlem who has been in our after-school program since its inception. Charlie Hanger, digital content manager for the Foundation, talked to Mark recently about how he got from there to here.

CH: Tell us a little about your upbringing in England.

MC: I grew up in Brighton & Hove, a seaside resort on the south coast of England. My family was working class. My dad was a tailor, worked in the clothing business, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom until the kids grew up, when she opened a handful of clothing stores for young people. I have two sisters, one older and one younger. My parents always made sure we had what was necessary, but we didn’t grow up in luxury.

CH: What were your football allegiances back home?

MC: I grew up as a big football fan, as most English kids do. Back in the early ’60s, when I was a young kid, the FA Cup final was being held between Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley, a club from a small town in Lancashire. Growing up in London, my dad and his family were huge Spurs fans, so I decided at my rebellious young age (I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10) that I didn’t want to support the team my dad supported, so I rooted for Burnley, and I’m still a Burnley fan. Growing up we used to go to games in our hometown and watch Brighton & Hove Albion play, but my passion has always been Burnley.

CH: How did you end up in New York?

MC: After grammar school, which is the equivalent of high school in the States, I began my professional training to become a Chartered Accountant, which is like a CPA on steroids. After passing a series of strenuous exams, I moved to London, where I worked for a few years, but I’d always wanted to come to the United States.

I was lucky enough to secure a job with a big insurance company, American International Group in New York, so I came to the U.S. in the early ’80s and began my corporate career. Also, I should say that before moving I’d met my future wife, Margy, on a trip to Israel, where I’d gone to see a friend at Tel Aviv University. Margy was studying there on an overseas program from Tufts University. We met and stayed in touch and had sort of a long-distance relationship, so part of coming to the United States was to further my professional career, but a lot was to chase a special lady.

We got married in 1986 and lived on the Upper West Side, where two of our kids were born. They were young, 2 and 5, and I remember taking them to Central Park one weekend, and they were both looking at the grass with a rather confused look on their faces, and that’s when I went home and said, “I think we should move to the suburbs.” So we left Manhattan in 1993 and moved to Roslyn on the North Shore of Long Island. We had another child there, and we’re still living in that house.

CH: Tell us about your professional career.

MC: I was with AIG for about nine years and Fitch Ratings for four years before moving to General Electric, where I worked close to 20 years before retiring about six years ago. Most of my career there was with GE Capital, where I headed up mergers and acquisitions. We would buy competing businesses, or buy companies to grow our products or geographical penetration around the world. In my last three years at GE, I had a similar role with GE’s biggest industrial business, GE Energy. Basically, our operation made equipment that generated power – large gas turbines, wind turbines and distributed power units.

CH: Do any deals stand out in your memory?

MC: I hate to focus on particular deals, as we did a lot of them, (many good ones, but some, not so good) the majority in the U.S. but also around the world — Germany, Japan, the U.K., Europe.

Acquiring companies requires a substantial amount of due diligence and examination of the asset you’re buying in a very short period of time. There’s an old adage in the world of M&A: “The seller always knows more than a buyer.” If you’ve ever sold a car or a house, you know that’s true. It was rather a challenge to make sure our team could acquire enough knowledge to make an informed decision about the risk-reward equation. It was very similar to golf, actually, where you have to look at a shot and in a relatively short period of time decide if the risk of trying to pull it off is worth the reward of actually pulling it off.

CH: That’s a good segue. How did you get into the game?

MC: My wife’s family were big golfers, especially my father-in-law and brother-in-law. My wife took lessons when she was a teenager, although she doesn’t play too often now. I had only played a little bit in England, but when we would vacation with my wife’s family, I started playing with them, and I got addicted. Over the years I’ve tried to manage the frustration that comes along with such a terrific game.

CH: Getting through the frustration can be hard, but golf does have its rewards. What have you gotten out of it over the years?

MC: If I look back at things I’ve learned about golf and applied to my personal life and professional career, it’s a long list.

I think golf has a tremendous similarity to the ups and downs you go through in life. There have been a couple of times in my life when I thought I may have mastered some part of the game, and then it takes me three shots to get out of a bunker! It’s a game that I continually learn from and something that humbles me tremendously.

Through golf I’ve learned a huge amount about people, and hopefully people have learned about me. When I was working, I always felt that it would be so much better to take someone out on the golf course instead of interviewing them in the office for an hour or two.

People have always told me in life not to dwell too much on the past, to stay in the present, which I think is a continuing challenge in golf as well. When we play golf, Michael and I repeat a mantra: “The most important shot in golf is the next one.”

I like the fact that golf is self-regulated. We don’t really have much other than our integrity in life, and it’s a constant factor in golf, where we determine how we play and how we adhere to the rules of the game.

I also like that it’s never perfected. Even the top PGA golfers in the world haven’t perfected golf.

CH: How did you become involved in the mentoring program at The Bridge Golf Foundation, and what can you tell us about your relationship with Michael Alameda?

MC: A couple of years ago, a close friend of mine who was already involved, Mark Kitaeff, asked me if I would be interested in being a mentor. I said sure, went to a meeting, and met Michael.

It took a little bit of time for us to get to know each other. My experience in mentoring came in the corporate world, where I used to mentor a number of younger professionals. This was a different challenge.

I live about 20 miles outside of New York City, so I don’t see him as regularly as I’d like, but we FaceTime and chat on the phone, or I’ll come in during the week and we’ll grab a cup of coffee while the after-school program is going on. We’ve played golf a couple of times, and we’re planning to do a volunteer activity at a soup kitchen in the near future.

I’m interested in getting him interested in charitable work. Every other year, I participate in a 300-mile, 5-day (very hilly) bike ride in Israel. It’s organized by a national organization, Camp Ramah, and raises funds for individuals with special needs. This year, before I did the ride in April, Michael and I went over the daily routes and talked about my strenuous training schedule.

One challenge for me as a mentor is that Michael and the other young men in the program have a lot of authority figures in their lives — parents, teachers, the staff at the Bridge, etc. I’m not sure the mentees are excited to have another authority figure in their lives, so I try to balance being a confidant and a friend while still showing concern for how he’s doing at school, at the Bridge, and in life generally. I think to be a good mentor you have to find that balance.

It’s also been a two-way street; I’ve learned from Michael as well. I’ve learned about hip-hop music and the NBA, two things that Michael’s very passionate about. (He’s a huge LeBron fan.) I have greater insight what it’s like to live as a 15-year-old in Harlem. I’ve tried to get something out of it too, and I hope that is challenging Michael to see that it’s a mutual exchange, and not just about me giving him advice. Michael is a fine young man, with a promising future.

I think what Bob Rubin, Stéphane Samuel, Mike Sweeney and the entire Bridge Golf Foundation team are undertaking is absolutely commendable. It’s a privilege to support this program.

CH: Did you have a mentor when you were younger?

MC: Not when I was growing up, and I don’t think I knew anyone who did. It was a different time. In the early part of my career at GE, however, I had a boss, a pretty senior guy in the company, who was a great mentor to me. I learned a tremendous amount from him in how he dealt with people from all levels of the company, and how he was always exceptionally prepared for whatever issue we were going to discuss.