..Lese Dunton..

Hal the Magnificent
Bike-Riding Businessman Provides Capital for the Poor

I met the legendary Hal Taussig, his beautiful wife Norma, and three of his loyal colleagues for lunch at a restaurant on the main street of Media, Pennsylvania, a half hour train ride from Philadelphia. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, wearing a light blue t-shirt with his company logo, the 82-year-old gentleman explained the origins of one of his favorite activities. He likes to help folks in financial need.

"As I read my Bible more, I learned more about the poor," said Hal. "When juxtaposed with the rich, the poor are always right and the rich are always wrong, according to the Bible. I also found out about Liberation Theology. It's a Catholic movement, started in Europe and first put into practice in Latin America, which puts the poor as their focal point. That really convinced me. It kind of moved the poor to my attention."

So where does he get the money to be so helpful? It comes from all the profits generated by his business. Some companies give 10 percent of their profits to charity, or 1% of annual gross, but Hal gives it all, in the form of low-interest loans.

This is so unusual and wonderful that he's been featured on "The Today Show" and in a variety of newspapers and magazines around the country. In 1999, Paul Newman and John Kennedy, Jr. presented him the with "Most Generous Company in America" award.

The company is called Untours, which Hal and Norma started back in the mid-70s. It's a travel agency with a unique slant. Instead of providing the usual fare – basic hotels and typical sight-seeing tours – they place clients in lovely apartments, cottages or cabins so they can really feel like residents for a couple of weeks or more. Whether it's a mountainside studio in Switzerland or a rustic farmhouse in Tuscany, travelers come back enriched with a new understanding of culture and people.

"I like to think of it as 'The Independent Study Way of Seeing Another Country,'" said board member, Mary LaFever. "Hal is a teacher, through and through. He provides the materials – the orientation of the business – and then you are free to explore and discover on your own. At the end of an Untour, people are even sent a questionnaire to evaluate how it was. So he's kept the teacher/education idea, but independent, and encourages people to discover on their own. That's why it's UN-tours. No tour guide."

This freedom-oriented, community-centered travel business has made millions in profits, which are then donated to the Untours Foundation, providing low-interest loans to people all over the world.

As soon as Hal decided to help the poor, something changed. "The profits started growing after I made that decision. Then I just gave my money away to a little church I was in."

He proceeded to experiment financially in ways both humorous and frustrating. First, he tried returning the extra money to his tourist clients. "It gave you the idea that they were afraid they were dealing with a madman," said Hal with a twinkle in his eye.

Next idea: giving everyone on his staff the same salary, and dividing the profits up equally at the end of the year. That worked okay until long-time workers started resenting new hires whose paycheck was the same as theirs. It got increasingly tense when the Gulf War eliminated profits one year, and Hal and Norma were pressured by employees to borrow money, which they decided not to do. Hello, new staffing.

Since then, the Untours Foundation has supplied hundreds of loans to small businesses, but more importantly, to people. For example:

  • Charles
    A 75-year-old friend, who drives people in the neighborhood to work and to appointments, had a car accident. He was given a loan to buy a used car so he can continue his work. Charles feels better already!
  • The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil
    These previous loan recipients have been able to reclaim farming land and achieve self-sufficiency. Their latest funding enables the farmers to start a seed business as well. Selling seeds will generate enough cash so they won't need to move into the city. Hal discovered an interesting coincidence when visiting their 400-person collective farm – almost everyone goes to churches that come from Liberation Theology. "That made me feel really good," he said.
  • Homecare Associates
    When Norma had a stroke in 1999, their insurance policy allowed them to have nurses, like Jeannette Laidlow, attend to her at home. They discovered the aides only got paid $8.50 an hour, while the agency received $19.00 an hour. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have the agency owned by the aides?'" said Hal. So they funded the Homecare Associates in Philadelphia. "We loaned all the $250,000 Newman-Kennedy prize money to them. Almost all the them were coming off of welfare to become nurse's aides."

    For more examples, go to www.untoursfoundation.org

  • Back at the office, Hal's daughter Marilee, an artist who also works for Untours, noticed similar family traits. "We're both people who tend to think outside the box. We're determined, in sort of a renegade way...I don't think he's a conventional thinker."

    "I'm probably repulsed by the concept," added Hal with his gentle smile.

    He started his work life as a cattle rancher in Colorado, just like his father, until the expensive bull he and his new wife purchased – expected to provide 40 or 50 calves – turned out to be sterile.

    Then he became a teacher at a Catholic college and was appointed chairman of the curriculum committee, but when he and the nuns changed the curriculum to allow more choices, he lost his job. "I didn't realize the Catholic hierarchy was still in place, and the dean and the president couldn't fire those nuns so they fired me...I like to brag about going broke in my first profession and getting fired in my second" laughed Hal.

    "He's incredibly open-minded...and he's just more fun than those in my normal circles," observed Associate Director Elizabeth Killough. "Hal hasn't wanted anyone to know about the foundation, and that's his super humility as much as the rancher. You do it yourself and run it yourself; you don't ask for money. I said I would come on board if he'd let me fundraise, and he had to really think about that, but now it's in the catalogue. The foundation promotes the business and the business promotes the foundation."

    Marketing Director Kim Paschen is equally impressed with her boss' character. "It's not like he's thinking up brilliant marketing ways to project himself. That's just who he is. It's awesome. If only every business did this. If every businessperson or CEO were like Hal, I think the world would be a lot better place.

    "With Hal, it's not just about the money, it's about his whole philosophy in life, which is, you don't need all that stuff to be happy and have an enriched life, and that's the key."

    A former college professor once told him,
    "It's not how much you give away, it's how much you keep."

    A few years after starting the business, Hal and Norma wanted to buy the house they were renting for the going price of $20,000, but the owner wasn't allowed to sell it.

    "I said I don't care who owns it, just let us live here," explained Hal. "So, instead, we wrote up a contract that said we could live there the rest of our lives.

    "And when I wrote her that check for $20,000 – which was all of my combined savings –– I realized I didn't have any money anywhere, nor did I own anything. I somehow felt that this is where I had been led. I had all I needed. I had a very rewarding business. I had a house and a bike and that's why I decided I wanted to stay where I had been led. I had a commitment. I don't think I spoke to God or anyone else. It seemed so right. I believe that God spoke to me."

    Growing up on the cattle ranch in rural Colorado, 25 miles from the nearest town, in the peaceful quiet of nature, the Taussig family had a bull named "Mischief Mixer." He was from a breed not considered to be worth much, but his father saw the potential and prospered by it. Indeed, Hal has learned a lot from his father and has been mixing mischief ever since.

    Back Row: Lotta Rao, Kim Paschen, Elizabeth Freeburg, Suzanna Volquarts,
    Jeannette Laidlaw, Annemarie Quinn, Brian Taussig, Dee McConnell, Sue Baker,
    Elizabeth Killough, Francy Douglas-Breon, Marianne Gunther, Cathrin Baumbach
    Middle Row: Dodge Ameral, Andi Cancelliere, Norma Taussig, Hal Taussig,
    Josemon Raju, Kate Duncan, Powen Shiah
    Front Row: Andrea Szyper, Marilee Taussig, Mary LeFever
    Copyright © 2007 The New Sun. All rights reserved.