CEO Lawrence Cohen speaks to DelVal students about his bumpy journey to success

Apr 12, 2012

Lawrence Cohen, DelVal’s twelfth Thomas W. Watson Executive-in-Residence, told students he didn’t have it all figured out when he left college, and that it wasn’t a smooth path at first for him.

His career took him everywhere from managing a bagel restaurant to fashion school before he found his passion and a field that fit him. He shared experiences from his career, both good and bad, on April 12 when he spoke at the college’s Student Center.

Cohen is CEO of IVD Solutions LLC, a company that does sales and marketing consulting for medical device and In Vitro Diagnostic companies.

“When I was sitting where you are now, I had no idea what I wanted to do, life throws you curves,” said Cohen. “Listening to people talk about their experiences may help you launch your own career.”

The Executive-in-Residence program brings worldwide business leaders to the college to spend a day with students. The program gives students a chance to hear honest advice from people with firsthand knowledge of the business world.

Thomas W. Watson, a 1957 graduate of DelVal, created the program. Watson is co-founder and vice chairman emeritus of Omnicom Group, Inc., a strategic holding company that manages a portfolio of global businesses. Watson also is dean of the company’s Omnicom University.

Cohen has experience working everywhere from startups to companies as large as Johnson & Johnson. He has led organizations and managed strategic business development and international business.

His lessons for students were:

1) Invest in yourselves and become lifelong learners.
“Keep your skills current or you’ll find yourself in yesterday’s business,” Cohen told students.

2) The path to success isn’t usually smooth, especially in the beginning.
“It is probably the exception when it is smooth,” said Cohen.
Cohen majored in chemistry in college and when he got out, he said it took him several years to find his footing.

His career journey even took him to the fashion industry. While working for his family’s women’s clothing business as a shipping clerk right out of college, he took fashion classes at night to learn what he needed to know for the business.

Later in his career, he was passed over for a marketing position at a company where he was working and decided to help a friend manage restaurants that served “anything on a bagel.” He lasted seven months in the bagel business.

During that time, some thugs showed up to tell him he had to use their trash service, he was robbed while making a deposit, and he found out his employees were stealing and selling large quantities of food from the restaurant.

3) Successful sales experience can get people to notice you.
He gained valuable experience in sales while working for the family clothing company. This experience served him well later in his career.

His family’s company didn’t do a lot of business in upstate New York, so his relatives sent him there to try to sell.

His family told him, “You can’t do much damage up there, go up there and sell.”

After his family sold the clothing business, he used his sales experience to land a job selling lab services to dentists, which got him a little closer to what he went to school for.

4) Build relationships.
He stressed the importance of building relationships with customers.

“You develop a network of people who can help you,” said Cohen. “Because of the relationships I have with people, I can go into a hospital and be welcomed into a lab.”

5) Mentors can help you succeed.
He encouraged students to find a mentor with a job they wanted to have next.

Cohen said he had a great mentor who taught him how to get in the door and get someone’s time when making a sales pitch.

6) Don’t be afraid to pick up and move for a great opportunity.
Cohen moved around a lot throughout his career. He even moved to Switzerland for a great position when his wife was seven months pregnant.

“To do things like that, to pick yourself up and move,” said Cohen. “It takes a person who thinks things are going to work out and if they don’t, you’ll recover.”

7) Admit when a position isn’t working out and know when to walk away.

He said it is hard to admit a position isn’t working out, but that students need to learn to do this to find a job that will be satisfying. He said try to fix the problem first, but if it can’t be fixed, move on. Cohen said students should find a position where they truly enjoy what they’re doing.

“Maybe you made a mistake, like I did going into the bagel business,” Cohen told students, stressing that there’s nothing wrong with changing directions to find happiness in a career.