November 6, 2013

Hank Siegel, President of Hamilton Jewelers, Is Third Generation to Head Family Business

CONTINUING THE TRADITION: “I love this business. I’m working in the greatest industry, surrounded by beautiful products. Jewelry has a soul. It comes from the earth and is passed down as an heirloom. It has sentiment and significance.” Hank Siegel, president and CEO of Hamilton Jewelers, is proud of the family business his grandfather founded.

CONTINUING THE TRADITION: “I love this business. I’m working in the greatest industry, surrounded by beautiful products. Jewelry has a soul. It comes from the earth and is passed down as an heirloom. It has sentiment and significance.” Hank Siegel, president and CEO of Hamilton Jewelers, is proud of the family business his grandfather founded.

Hank Siegel is a strong and committed advocate. For his family, his community, and his business.

As president and CEO of Hamilton Jewelers, he has led the company to new levels of success, while retaining its core values and its character as a family business.

“This is an honor and a responsibility,” says Mr. Siegel. “Today, we have more than 100 employees. The business started with three: my grandfather, grandmother, and one employee.”

Hank Siegel was surrounded by the family business for as long as he can remember. Hamilton, originally known as George Marks, Inc., opened in Trenton in 1912, and was purchased in 1927 by Hank’s grandfather, Irving Siegel, the son of immigrants from eastern Europe.

“My grandfather was a strong role model. I had great admiration for him,” says Mr. Siegel. “One of six children, he left school at 15 to help support the family. He worked hard, and as a young man, he made the decision to buy the jewelry business. Then came the Crash in 1929 and the Great Depression. The store was able to manage during those years by offering service. They’d send someone over to wind a customer’s grandfather clock or polish the silver.”

Community Service

Hank was born in 1958 in Trenton to Martin (Irving’s son) and Denise Siegel. He was the eldest of the family’s four sons, which also included Jeff, Scott, and Peter.

Growing up in Yardley, Pa., Hank enjoyed school and was active in the student council and athletics. “I played baseball in Little League, and also football and tennis. In school, I liked civics, social studies, and economics. I went to The George School in Newtown, Pa. for high school, and I had several teachers there who were important to me, especially my first economics teacher, Robert Waters. Also, at the school, we were involved in service to the community.”

Hank knew from an early age that he was drawn to the family business and would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. “I started helping out in the store when I was a pipsqueak. And when I was seven, I decided to take some props home and set up my own display with trinkets I found, including my mother’s 3-carat diamond engagement ring. She had taken it off, and I found it on a table. I sold it to the boy next door for a quarter! Fortunately, his mother found it and returned it.”

Hank was the beneficiary of a close family, and grew up in a neighborhood with lots of peers and unstructured outdoor play. “I count myself very blessed with my family,” he says. “We went to Long Beach Island for a month every summer, and I loved that. We saw the same families and got to know the lifeguards. And we also had family vacations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Florida.”

In 1976, Hank entered Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. “I had grown up in the northeast, and it was a change of pace to go south,” he explains. “It gave me a change of perspective. Atlanta was extremely cosmopolitan, with people from all over. I loved Emory, and I made a lot of good friends there.”

He served as president of his fraternity, which was active in community service, including, among other projects, the brothers volunteering as food and drink vendors at the Atlanta Falcons football games.

College Sweetheart

Although he majored in business, Hank took a wide range of courses, such as philosophy, English literature, and astronomy, all of which broadened his horizons.

A major highlight of his college career was meeting Lisette Van Plateringen, who would become his wife. “Lisette was my college sweetheart,” he says with a smile, “and that has never changed!” They were married in 1985.

After graduation, he planned to start working at Hamilton, but his parents had other ideas. “I was ready to work at the store, but my parents wanted me to get more education, so I got an MBA at Boston University. My parents were thinking about what was needed to take the family business to the next level, increasing the professional structure and management without losing the heritage of the family business.”

After earning the MBA, Hank moved to Princeton, but before taking on his responsibilities at Hamilton, he had one more educational challenge ahead. His parents wanted him to have a full and comprehensive understanding of what it takes to operate a successful jewelry business.

“Now they wanted me to study at the Gemological Institute of America in New York City and get a degree in gemology. This was a 6-month course, and I studied the origin of gemstones, learning to identify, evaluate, and understand their origin.

“My parents and grandparents had done an excellent job with the business, but they realized we should go forward. They weren’t ones just to sit back and do things the way they had always been done. Now, we had to adapt to all the changes coming along, including the age of computers, websites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.”

Important Conversation

Mr. Siegel also recalls an important conversation he had with his grandfather at that time regarding the significance of staying focused. “He said to me that you always do better in business by re-investing in your existing business and in your community than by spreading yourself too thin. His advice proved to be timeless.”

Hamilton has extended its reach over the years, but always retaining a close connection and involvement within its community. A Lawrenceville store was opened in 1973, followed by two in Florida in 1974 and 1988, the Princeton store in 1986, and most recently, a Red Bank location in 2003. Currently, there are four stores, with the Lawrenceville and Trenton stores having closed.

“I am proud that the Hamilton brand has grown in recognition, both nationally and internationally, and importantly, it is locally trusted,” says Mr. Siegel. “We choose to be small, expert, and specialized, focusing on heritage, craftsmanship, and service rather than national/global and diluted.”

Recipient of many awards, ranging from being named Best Retailer of the Year in 1960 to the first family-owned jeweler in the world to be certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council in 2012, Hamilton was most recently recognized as the Best New Jersey Family Business by the Rothman Institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Hank Siegel himself was inducted into the National Jeweler’s Retailer Hall of Fame in 1997.

Ethical and honest business practices are very important to Mr. Siegel, and he spends a great deal of time advising companies and organizations in this regard. As he points out, “It has been my goal to raise the level of business practices. I have always had a deep personal commitment to improve the jewelry industry at large. I served as chairman of the board of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee and on the boards and committees of numerous other organizations within the industry. My personal passion is the whole idea of responsible business practices.”

Pertinent examples in the jewelry industry he cites are “the ethical sourcing of gem materials, including proper extraction from the earth so the environment is not harmed; proper and safe working conditions for the laborers; and proper supply chain and custody of the materials.”

Better Leaders

Hamilton was elected to membership in the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices, an international non-profit association representing more than 420 organizations across the gold and diamond supply chain. It is one of only 56 exclusive retail members internationally to be recognized and admitted into this prestigious group.

Mr. Siegel’s focus on ethics in business has been evidenced from the beginning of his stewardship at Hamilton. It continued when he became president in 1994, and then later when he joined the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), an association in more than 120 countries emphasizing “Better Leaders Through Education and Idea Exchange”.

In addition to his work specifically relating to the jewelry industry, Mr. Siegel also spends time advising other companies in the methods and responsibilities involved in operating a successful family business. As he notes, “We have been successful for three generations, over 100 years. While there are numerous brands with a rich heritage in the luxury industry, there are very few with the heritage of Hamilton that are still independently owned. This is something that we are extremely proud of, and I am particularly grateful both to my grandfather and father in that they built the foundation for today’s success.”

Mr. Siegel’s commitment to ethics in business and his leadership abilities are very clear to those who work with him, both employees at Hamilton and colleagues in other companies.

“I believe Hank has provided exceptional leadership and wise and compassionate counsel to his employees,” says Eric H. Waser, New York Metro Division Head of Citibank, and a long-time friend of Mr. Siegel. “He leads by example, is very thoughtful, and committed to the professional development of his employees. This commitment also extends to the numerous trade and civic organizations he invests considerable time into.

“Family businesses that have been as successful as Hamilton Jewelers has been, spanning three generations, are few and far between. I suspect that Hamilton’s success, influenced in large part by Hank, is due to their making everyone feel special. No gimmicks, just genuine caring. Hank, his family, and employees are admirable ambassadors of Princeton. Like many, I am grateful for my personal relationship with Hank and his accomplished wife Lisette.”

Example and Encouragement

Adds Bernie Tenenbaum, Princeton resident, business consultant, and former professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania: “Hank is a leader. He inspires by the way he deals with everyone he meets. He leads by example and encouragement. He motivates his team members to extraordinary performance. I think Hank wants everyone to win.

“He is unfailingly courteous, thoughtful, and considerate. And he is able to balance old-world tradition represented by the greatest brands that Hamilton sells with the adaptive requirements of today’s digital age.”

Mr. Siegel is very proud of the employees who have contributed so much to Hamilton’s success. “The experience and expertise that we offer is unique,” he points out. “Many of our employees have been with us for 10 years or longer. For over 20 years, we have had one of the world’s most renowned experts working with fine Swiss watches, and another expert in the field of colored stones. We have hand-engravers, gemstone setters, and six watchmakers. We also employ experts in polishing, jewelry design, and appraising.”

Mr. Siegel believes that positive interaction with employees and setting a high standard for himself lead to the best business results. As he explains, “ Everyone appreciates being appreciated. Catch someone doing something right each day and praise them for it. Also, hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone expects.”

One of Hamilton’s employees of long-standing is gift department sales associate, buyer liaison, and store display overseer Joanna Riley. “I have been with Hamilton for 22 years, and I have known Hank all that time. He is truly remarkable. He brings a sense of pride and personal commitment to excellence to all aspects of the business. He has an open door policy, which is shown in his willingness to listen, care, and acknowledge all team members. The Siegels and the team here are truly my extended family. It has been an amazing experience to work here.

“In addition,” continues Ms. Riley, “Hank’s contributions to the community are endless. Princeton Area Community Foundation, Eden Autism Services, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Easter Seals … the list goes on and on.”

Indeed, Hamilton and Mr. Siegel are very much involved in supporting community charities and organizations. Giving back is important. Last year, in commemoration of Hamilton’s 100th anniversary, they initiated “100 Days of Giving”. The program encouraged all Hamilton associates to volunteer their time to an organization of their choice in their community. They volunteered one day of service to the charity and received a full day’s compensation from Hamilton.

Walking the Dogs

“We were able to support 100 local organizations, including everything from the Trenton Soup Kitchen to medical and children’s organizations to the arts,” reports Mr. Siegel. “This was important to us.”

Living and working in Princeton for more than 30 years has given Mr. Siegel a special view of this community and its unique qualities. As he says, “I have loved the diversity of Princeton. There are so many people from all over. I love the fact that my wife and I can walk our dogs in town and see people we know and others from all over and all backgrounds. For me personally, community is very important. I am a fourth generation Mercer County resident. I appreciate this area and the community.

“Princeton continues to be diverse, a unique combination of people from all levels of society and backgrounds. I enjoy being a season ticket holder at McCarter, and we go to concerts at Richardson Hall and to games at Princeton University. My wife also audits courses at the University.

“A big pleasure for me is working in the garden,” he adds. “It is therapeutic. I also like to play golf, and my wife has taken it up now too, so we can play together.”

Mr. Siegel is a music-lover — everything from 1960s rock to “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen to opera, especially Puccini’s Tosca.

“I remember when I first saw Bruce Springsteen,” he recalls. “It was October 1974 at Alexander Hall. I will never forget that!”

Quality of Life

Serving on boards and contributing time to organizations that have special meaning for him is another way Mr. Siegel supports his community. “I have served on The George School Committee, as well as on the boards of McCarter Theatre and the Greenwood House for the Aged. Both of these organizations contribute greatly to the quality of life in the Mercer County region, and The George School had a great impact on me.”

“The Siegel family has a history of service to Greenwood House, dating to my grandmother and my parents as well as myself and Lisette,” continues Mr. Siegel. “We were deeply grateful in 2003, when the organization chose to honor the Siegel family for its gala event, at which President Clinton was the speaker. I was additionally honored to have been chosen to conduct the ‘Q and A’ session with the former President. Talk about being nervous!”

While Mr. Siegel enjoys spending time at home, he often finds himself on the road — or more literally — in the air. “I travel extensively, over 100,000 miles a year, to India, Africa, Asia, and Europe on business,” he reports.

“It is my great privilege to serve on the board of the Gemological Institute of America. The Board of Governors is comprised of 16 individuals from around the world with expertise in a variety of areas, such as mineralogy, education, research, and finance, as well as experts from the jewelry and gem industries.

“We recently had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and Botswana, and the trip provided amazing insights into the diamond industry in these two nations — South Africa being one of the oldest diamond-producing and cutting nations, and Botswana being one of the newest.”

Enriching and often unexpected experiences occur on these travels, he adds, and they frequently emphasize the outreach of Hamilton. For example: “On a trip to India, I was speaking with a man whom I didn’t know, and he said, ‘Are you Mr. Siegel? I was in your store in Princeton not long ago!’

Bottom Up

“We always have to consider how we can continue to be successful, especially in a rapidly-changing world,” he points out. “This business is in my blood. I learned it from the bottom up, and I especially enjoy the interaction with the clients and my incredible staff.

“This is a happy business,” he continues. “Jewelry is beautiful; it makes you feel good, and it is associated with happy occasions — engagements, weddings, anniversaries. At the end of the day, the greatest satisfaction is when I’m in the store, and a young gentleman comes in looking for an engagement ring. I’ll ask if this is his first time in Hamilton, and he’ll often say that his grandfather and father had shopped at Hamilton for engagement and wedding rings. It’s an honor to serve multiple generations.”

Mr. Siegel adds that he is very appreciative of the industry and business accolades that Hamilton has received “but we are even more grateful for the many wonderful friends and clients who have chosen Hamilton to help celebrate the most important occasions of their lives — which to me is the greatest honor of all.”

Such reflections bring him back to his family, the business, and what it means to continue such a legacy. He is reminded of memories he and his father have of Irving Siegel’s willingness to accept a down payment, “whatever the client was able to afford, and he would agree to subsequent payments with just a handshake, whether the transaction was for hundreds — or thousands — of dollars.

Clarity of Values

“Clarity as to values is important,” emphasizes Mr. Siegel. “I helped to codify Hamilton’s core ethics when I first joined the company. Clarity about what is important is crucial. We always emphasize community, entrepreneurship and hospitality.

“To this day, very much of what I’m about is my relationship with my family. Having my father at Hamilton as chairman is the best. I am able to have the resource of both my father’s and mother’s wisdom. My parents always emphasized family, and this is important to me, my wife, and my two sons, Andrew and Benjamin, whom I respect, admire, and love greatly. They make me proud.

“I am close with my brothers and their kids. We all get together every Thanksgiving as a family at my parents’ house. With my brothers, their kids and our close friends, it can be anywhere from 25 to 40 people. My mom does the cooking (with a little help from the daughters-in-law!), and it is something we all look forward to.”

And as far as Hamilton is concerned and its continuing legacy, he couldn’t agree more with his father’s point of view and how it reflects his own thinking and career.

As Martin Siegel remarked. “I started to help my dad in the business when I was 12 years old. I never thought of doing anything else. I came into the business formally in 1955, and now my son Hank is president and CEO. It has meant more than I ever expected to have the family business continue. It’s the dream of a father, passed on to a son and a grandson.”