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Herb Spiegel’s Hands On, Hard Knocks School

Herb Spiegel never took a business course in his life.

Now, at 67, he’s teaching for-credit business classes at Mercer County

Community College for the first time, and though his path to the


has been untraditional, there couldn’t be a better person for the


Spiegel attended a school of business as rigorous in its way as any

formal program. Raised in his father’s well-known Trenton furniture

store, Herman Spiegel Furniture, he learned retail as a first


"I literally grew up under a dining room table," he says.

"We always discussed business in the house — we may not have

discussed balance sheets, but it was like `Retail Pursuit.’ Those

were my big classes."

Spiegel has continued to live and breathe business ever since, and

has been a dynamic force in the business community of Trenton and

Mercer County for years. The rich experience of those years peppers

the theory of his teaching with first-hand anecdotes and practical

entrepreneurial wisdom. Spiegel is a walking testament to the value

of continuing education. Whatever he teaches in the classroom, part

of his message will be that everyone needs to continue to learn.

Starting Thursday, August 31, 6 to 8:40 p.m., Spiegel teaches Business

Organization and Management, and he also has a 10 a.m. class on


Wednesdays, and Fridays. He teaches Small Business Management starting

August 28 on Mondays and Fridays at noon, and Principles of Marketing

starting August 29 on Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon. Each three


course costs $231 for Mercer residents. Call 609-586-4800.

His commitment to business in the area began with his deep roots in

Trenton. Spiegel’s mother Ida, now 97, was born there, and his father

came to Trenton in 1932 to open the furniture business.

Spiegel’s only detour occurred when he attended Rutgers University

and graduated in 1955 with a degree in advertising. Afterwards he

went into the Air Force. At navigation school in the Strategic Air

Command, he says, "my greatest claim to fame there is that I


support the U2 mission that Frances Gary Powers flew over Russia."

Still, he says, "there was no question in my mind that I’d be

coming back to the business."

Spiegel was involved in the furniture store with his older brother

Irwin for 26 years. The store survived a move to Lawrenceville but

closed in 1984, partly because of diminished family interest in


the business.

Afterwards, Spiegel spent a year as a manufacturing representative

for a furniture business.

Soon thereafter he was hired to run the Small Business Development

Center (SBDC), a position he held for 15 years and left recently.

He installed the International Trade Data Base at the center and also

put up a very informative webpage with virtually everything an


needs to know ( Spiegel later wrote the grant and

obtained funding for the SBDC in central Trenton through Mercer County

Community College (MCCC). "My feelings toward Trenton emerged

again," he says.

Spiegel explains that an SBDC is a business incubator where new


are nurtured. Included in the facilities are low rental areas or


office space which include amenities such as conference rooms and

fax machines. Counseling and training in the SBDC center is provided

for some inner-city businesses. The average stay is two to three


and then businesses either take off on their own — or don’t.

"Like everything else you have your successes and your


he says. Spiegel laughs when he thinks about some of the dubious


schemes he encountered in his years at SBDC, though he is protective

about revealing them. "I was very realistic, sometimes too


and blunt."

"Cherchez les creneaux," he was fond of saying. "Find

the hole. Be sure there is a need for the business you want to open.

A good idea is not enough to start a business."

Entrepreneurs often had inflated expectations about the likelihood

of getting a bank loan. Bank loans are for businesses, he’d say, not

start-ups. "Be willing to risk money on your own venture,"

he would advise. "If you are not willing to take a risk, don’t

expect someone else to." And then he would soften the harsh advice

with a joke.

With his infectious enthusiasm, Spiegel has never confined himself

to one activity. In 1992 he had his first brush with teaching when

he led a group of American business people to present a small business

seminar in the former Soviet Union.

The experience in the country and with its people affected him deeply.

"I’ll never forget when I had to stand up and explain a free


economy. That you can sell almost anything for any price. That someone

can open up a store next door to you and sell the same thing for less.

The students’ jaws dropped. It was an exhilarating experience."

As part of the visit, he and a few of the seminar leaders made a visit

to the Volgograd Civil Engineering Institute (VCEI) and were asked

to give another small business workshop.

Despite the differences in the culture, Spiegel recalls, "When

I walked into the room at VCEI, I didn’t know where I was. I could

have been in Princeton, Cambridge — these could have been college

kids anywhere — and it really left an impression on me. I loved

being there, loved the people."

When he arrived back in the U.S., there was a serendipitous letter

in his mailbox advertising a need for someone to head the first SBDC

in Russia. Spiegel jumped on the chance.

"I sent them a brazen line saying `I’m exactly what you’re looking

for.’ And I had run a SBDC, was a former business owner, and had a

bit of experience teaching Russians."

He got the position and spent four months in a little village outside

of St. Petersburg. The town was the site of the summer palace of


and Alexandra, and was only 17 kilometers from St. Petersburg as the

crow flies, but one hour and 15 minutes away on Russian transportation

— what Spiegel terms "a real schlep."

Instead of hiring a driver, he lived a Russian life and endured the

crowds on buses and trains. "There are not too many amenities

or restaurants. The first time I went to the market to buy eggs I

was simply handed the eggs! I put them in my pocket," he says.

Still, he says, "I love the country with all its


After he finished teaching business planning, running a seminar, and

counseling prospective entrepreneurs, Spiegel was joined in Russia

by P.J. Dempsey, founder of Morgan Mercedes (now Randstad) on


Road, Gail Eagle of G.E. Associates of East Brunswick, and Carol Beske

of ACT Engineers Inc. of Robbinsville.

The four of them taught another week-long seminar to additional eager

students, and Spiegel says "I almost have to fight back tears

just thinking about it. The kids were so appreciative of


The seminar started out with 45 people; by the third day there were

75, by the last there were over 100 — even the instructors


to see the American style of teaching and their interactive lessons.

"Russia will never be the same since Herb Spiegel’s arrival,"

says Dempsey. "After the fall of Communism, the people lacked

confidence in their leadership abilities, and they were grateful when

we could give them a plan. Herb was like the pied piper; people were

following him around. And — in Russia as wherever he goes, Herb

brought laughter. He taught them the art of the joke."

Ever since this thrilling experience, Spiegel has wanted to teach,

but several years passed before he would get the chance.

In that time he helped research and write the successful Foreign Trade

Zone (FTZ) application for the County of Mercer with Steve Gable of

MCCC. An FTZ is an area of land that sits in the U.S. but is not


to be U.S. territory. As long as goods are in an FTZ there is no


duty to pay, which is a tremendous advantage for many businesses.

Spiegel says that "90 percent of the refrigerators in this country

are in FTZs — being there defers the payment of taxes until the

item leaves." After many months the application was accepted,

leading to the classification of the Mercer County Airport as an FTZ,

which has greatly benefited area business.

Another of Spiegel’s thrills was his appointment as the business


to the third economic conference of Organization for Security and

Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the UN of Europe, by Congressman Chris

Smith in 1995. The OSCE was partly responsible for maintaining peace

in Bosnia. At the conference in Prague where the delegation head was

the undersecretary of commerce, Spiegel enjoyed "my four days

of playing diplomat."

Spiegel also speaks proudly of his involvement in the Self-Employment

Assistance (SEA) program, which provides entrepreneurial training

for people whose employment benefits are about to run out. The SEA

program was run through Mercer County Community College at nine sites,

and consisted of an intense six-week-long program. At the end of this,

Spiegel says, "You’re certainly prepared to go into business."

He also developed the Biz Planner, which will be included in his fall

curriculum for Business Organization and Management. The Biz Planner

is a workbook of simple forms that guide entrepreneurs through their

business plans with a minimum of fuss.

"When I put this together with Lorraine Adler (now with the New

Jersey Department of Commerce) we changed the paradigm for business

planning. People thought you had to be elaborate, but banks will


this plan straight from the workbook. This plan is market competitive

and includes templates for the math on a computer disk."

He adds smiling, "Before I was in academia I couldn’t use words

like ‘paradigm.’ "

Now that he is in academia, Spiegel is, no surprise, full of


for it.

"In this part of my career I’m moving to the classroom and I’m

very, very excited. To impart all of the background and small business

know-how to students is very exciting. What I’m really trying to do

is to bring entrepreneurship into the classroom. I feel that by


entrepreneurship with real-life stories and experience was something

my class seemed to be happy with."

This combination of practical knowledge mixed with theory is Spiegel’s

main goal. He will be bringing his unique approach to MCCC’s


to Small Business Management, an advanced course, as well as a


course in the fall.

"This teaching is a dream for me," he says.

And it seems that teaching at Mercer County Community College is the

culmination of his various activities.

Spiegel is the first to say: "I’m a natural ham and teaching is

like being onstage."

No doubt some of his personable nature comes from his father. "I

remember as a kid, we lived 100 yards from our furniture store on

Market Street. My dad would be sitting in the front window when the

store was closed, and if he saw someone looking in the store window

he’d go out and introduce himself."

As a family, he recalls, "We used to visit new stores and see

what they were doing. I still do that wherever I go. Everybody says,

‘You do a lot of shopping.’ I don’t know how much buying I do but

I get to know the area and the people."

Spiegel married his high school sweetheart, Regina, the former head

of the department of music at Princeton Day School, who died in 1997.

They had five children, including a son, now a gourmet chef with a

series of soup restaurants that Zagat’s called the best of its kind

in New York City; one a sports radio show producer in Chicago; a


a musician with the Blue Man Tubes in Chicago; a daughter, an


in Chicago; and a daughter who is an RN in Washington, D.C.

A year ago Spiegel married Joan Rose, a "change consultant"

who helps people cope with life challenges. Together, they moved from

Lawrenceville to what Spiegel refers to as a "peaceful


near the canal in Lambertville (E-mail:

The retail background Spiegel was steeped in still underlies the way

he perceives everything, even his teaching. "I once got into a

discussion with a faculty member who objected to me calling students


This terminology may indeed seem unusual, but to Spiegel it is an

accolade. "I grew up in a retail house. We loved customers. We

loved the word customer."

And of long-time retailers like himself he adds, "Our reason for

coming to work is to serve the customers — that’s what we get

up for."

— Vickie Schlegel

For an article on Joan Rose Spiegel, go to

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