Unconventional businessman shares profits with the people
Jul. 18, 2007
NOTE: Photographs and video available at http://umns.umc.org.
By James Melchiorre*
MEDIA, Penn. (UMNS) - Clad in blue jeans and a T-shirt, Hal Taussig, 82, rides his bicycle to work every day and hasn't owned a car since 1971.
"I gave my last car away to a hitchhiker," recalls Taussig.
He does, however, own Untours, a hugely successful travel company. And he has done the same thing with $5 million in profits over the past 15 years that he did with his last car.
He gave it away.
Taussig's Untours Foundation loans money to low-income people trying to start new businesses or otherwise improve their lives.
"It wasn't a vow of poverty, I didn't do anything like that," the United Methodist businessman says of his modest lifestyle. "I said I'm never going to have any money in the bank, no money collected in the bank or have anything in my name. And whatever's left over at the end of the month, whatever's left over, I get rid of it."
Taussig and his wife, Norma, founded Untours in the mid-1970s. Their goal was to provide a service to travelers wanting to stay in private homes instead of touristy hotels in order to get to know the people and cultures they visit.
In other words, they serve folks who are really kindred spirits with Hal and Norma.
"We wanted to know the ordinary person in Europe instead of knowing just those that tourists got to know when they were just spending money," recalls Norma.
The two defining characteristics of Untours - bypassing "tourist" luxury to live among the people and donating all profits - ensure that Taussig's business reflects his values.
So does his personal lifestyle. He and Norma live in a narrow wood-frame house on the outskirts of Media and dry their laundry from a clothesline running from the back porch.
"I have a mission to fight this consumerism," he says. "I think the direction we're heading in is catastrophic. If we keep taking things out of the earth at the rate we're doing now, there's going to be no society as we know it."
Taussig got the idea to donate profits from Untours five years after he and Norma started their business.
"I had been aware of the rising gap between the rich and the poor, which I believe is not sustainable," he recalls. "I think that can be addressed only by economic means. My idea is to get capital to poor people rather than charity."
As part of its philanthropic mission, Taussig's Untours Foundation has made hundreds of loans to small businesses, including Home Care Associates of Philadelphia, which provides health care services to patients who remain in their homes rather than enter the hospital. Many of the company's employees once received welfare payments.
"Paul Newman and JFK Jr. had given me this award - Most Generous Business in America - and we had $250,000 in award money," he recalls. "We decided to loan that to Home Care Associates, and they doubled their staff that first year and from that year on they've made a profit. There are 50 people who came off welfare and they get dividends now."
The Taussigs attend First United Methodist Church in Media. The pastor there compares Hal to a walking Sunday school lesson.
"You talk about your heart breaking for homeless people and (how) the church should be outraged about poverty, hunger and war," says the Rev. Maridel Whitmore. "Here's a person doing what we preach and I think he's made us all straighten up a little bit and look at ourselves .... If this is what Hal's doing, maybe we should be following his example."
Taussig jokes that the travel business is his third attempt at a career. He first worked as a cattle rancher in his native Colorado and later was a college professor and high school teacher.
He and Norma have raised three children. Their son is a United Methodist minister and a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One daughter was ordained a Lutheran priest, and the other daughter is an artist who works for Untours.
"If he decided to leave all his money to his children, I wouldn't argue a bit. I'm not quite the saint maybe that my dad is," jokes daughter Marilee Taussig, the artist, who also lives across the street from her parents.
"But I'm also aware he taught me other things that are going to last longer than any amount of money. He took me all over the world and he continues to reach out to different kinds of people, and I think that lasts longer than any amount of money."
Not surprisingly, Hal Taussig is not comfortable being viewed as a role model.
"I don't particularly like being made the center of attention as I am right now," he says. "I'm only doing this (interview) because I like to have people discuss the problem of poverty - world poverty I find so disastrous - and finding a new way to solve it."
*Melchiorre is a freelance producer based in New York City.
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