The Wiz of Biz

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

When business lecturer Robert Mark asks for volunteers in his sales management class, hands shoot up all over the room. It may seem like a miracle, but it's not. It's magic. Mark is an illusionist, who uses sleight of hand to conjure up oos and ahhs from what could otherwise be a ho-hum classroom experience.

Mark, a native of downstate Flushing, graduated from Michigan Tech with a business degree in 1971 and always wanted to come back. He got his chance in January when he assumed the position of lecturer in the School of Business and Economics.

It's been a long, strange, round trip, starting with a tour of duty with the Army Corps of Engineers in Germany, where Mark investigated the narcotics business, a different kind of sales position that involved trading in heroin on the street. After his stint in the military, he went to work as the business manager of an engineering firm, which taught him that most engineers don't know much about business.

Then he earned a master's degree from the University of Utah and became an owner of a computer software business in California (it's still going strong). Next, with an old fraternity buddy, Mark bought into the engineering firm he'd managed years earlier.

In between, he taught sales and marketing in night school and went on the road, teaching the basics of business to engineers all over the country, which is where the magic comes in.

He was on the talk circuit in 1988, on his way to Kansas City, and had a long layover at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. He spotted a book on magic in a gift shop. "I grabbed the book," Mark recalls, "stuck my thumbs in, opened it up, there was a cut-and-restored rope trick, and they had suggested patter to go with it. I said, 'I can use that patter in my seminar tomorrow to illustrate this point.'" He hailed a cab in Kansas City, stopped at a hardware store, bought a length of rope, went to his room, practiced the trick, and the next day in his seminar he threw in the trick to illustrate a point.

"Everybody went nuts," he says.

What worked in Kansas City also works in Houghton. This particular Tuesday, he is lecturing on the finer points of sales training, and one of those points is that nobody was ever bored into learning anything. "Keep it interesting," he exhorts.

Following his own advice, Mark begins to run through a complicated card trick that involves throwing invisible cards across the room, magically extracting a specific card from his visible deck (the queen of hearts!), making cards appear in a student's pocket and lots and lots of patter. "Dale, I'm getting vibes that you're not buying the invisible deck," he chides a volunteer, who is clearly skeptical about shuffling cards he can't actually see.

"The magic wakes you up and makes you pay attention," says sophomore Nichole Cholette, who picked the well-placed queen of hearts. So much of college life is routine, she says, going to class after class, day after day. "His presentation is exciting, fun, interesting."

Senior Dale Kleffman, whose pockets mysteriously collected three missing cards, remains baffled by the trick. "I still don't know how he did it," he admits. That said, he finds other aspects of Mark's classroom presence more compelling than the necromancy.

"Actually, I'm not so interested in the magic, though it does get people off their feet and paying attention," Kleffman said. What's more important is Mark's mastery of the material. "He's a pretty captivating speaker, and he presents the material fluidly," Kleffman said. "He's in the top 10 percent of all the teachers I've ever had, and before he hangs it up, he could be at the top."

Mark doesn't sound as if he will be hanging it up anytime soon. "I'm having a ball," he says. "Working with students is everything I thought it would be."

Part of his success in the classroom comes not from magic but from an earthbound sense of reality. "I don't present PhD stuff," Mark says. "It's what I've learned from 30 years in business, things people can use right away. When we talk about closing techniques, I can tell them what worked for me and what didn't."

Mark's mantra underscores what has worked for him in his two careers, in business and in teaching: If they are laughing, they are learning. "You've got to make it fun," Mark says.

Gregory Lemon, a senior majoring in business administration, says this trick works.

"He makes you laugh, and it helps you learn," Lemon says. "He grabs everybody's attention with those tricks, and there's not a mouth moving in class."

"I enjoy the tricks, but I also like the fact that he's so comfortable with the material," Lemon adds. "He's like a buddy you are hanging out with--he takes you outside the classroom setting and opens a lot of minds.

"It's true what he says: If you are laughing, you are learning."

It's not just the students who are having fun.

"I love teaching," Mark says. "On Saturday I say, 'I wish tomorrow were Tuesday.'"

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.