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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
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 (www.mccc.edu/~hss). 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
"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
"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: email@example.com).
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
— Vickie Schlegel
For an article on Joan Rose Spiegel, go to
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