Hal Taussig will never make the Forbes list of highest paid CEO’s. It’s not that his Pennsylvania travel company isn’t profitable. Untours, the company he started in 1971 with a $5000 loan, pulls down annual profits of a million dollars, sending thousands of customers a year on shoestring cultural immersions to 24 destinations around the world.
It’s just that Hal donates every penny (yes, 100 percent) of the company’s profits to innovative projects that address poverty. He lives in a tiny two-room house with his wife Norma (she owns the century-old wood frame house that was built for mill workers), rides a bike to work (he gave his car away to a hitchhiker nearly 40 years ago), shops at thrift stores (his one suit cost $12 — “It’s a Brooks Brothers. I’m very proud of that suit,” Hal says) and refuses to take a salary. He has one pair of shoes that he resoles when they get worn and he reads newspapers and magazines at the library.
“I decided a long time ago I didn’t want to accumulate wealth,” Taussig says. “Things do not make people happy. Living simply is how I get joy out of life. I live a very rich life on very little money.”
In 1999, when John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Paul Newman awarded Taussig with a “Most Generous Business in America” award, he went to New York to accept it, but rather than staying in a hotel, he stayed in a $10-a-night youth hostel.
“I don’t feel right about staying in a five-star hotel when there are people who don’t even have a roof over their head,” he says.
As for the $250,000 award, he used the entire amount to help home health-care workers start their own business. His wife Norma had just had a stroke.
“The woman who was taking care of her was only making $8 an hour while the agency was making $18,” Taussig says.
“We give loans and provide a hand up, not a handout,” Taussig says. “I’m trying to make the poor into capitalists, to help them become self-sustaining, to give them a way to make a living.”
Since 1992, when he started the Untours Foundation, he has provided more than $6 million, in loans to support such ventures as NativeEnergy, which sells “green tags” to fund wind, solar, and methane power; strawbale housing on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation and Bionatur, an heirloom seed company born out of the efforts of the Landless Workers Movement.
“We look for really innovative things that have the potential to change the world,” says Elizabeth Killough, who works for Hal at the Foundation. “Hal is off the charts. I tell him I should pay HIM for the opportunity to work here. I used to be his consultant and when he asked me to work for him, I hesitated. Everybody needs heroes and I didn’t want to find out there was a dark side. But I’ve been here seven years now and he’s the real deal.
“Five years ago, he came to me and said, ‘Let’s make Media (Pennsylvannia where they’re headquartered) the first Fair Trade town in America. I laughed and couldn’t imagine what that would look like. I googled it just to humor him. And sure enough, there were fair trade towns in Europe. And we managed to get Media as the first Fair Trade Town in the U.S.or as they say in Europe, the first Fair Trade Town in the Americas.”
“He really walks the talk,” says his daughter, Marilee Taussig, who left corporate America to work for her dad’s company. “It’s an admirable way to live your life, but sometimes it’s hard to be a family member of someone who is such an idealist, someone who doesn’t believe in a safety net.
“I call myself the unheiress. If my dad had decided to leave me a million dollars, would I have turned it down? Absolutely not. But what he left me is something much richer and that is the ability to live what you believe in and put your money where your mouth is. It’s all well and good to talk about living simply, but it’s a whole other thing to live it.”
“Money is the least important thing a parent can give a child. My dad gave me integrity, a sense of humor and a sense of purpose,” Marilee says.
Marilee says the company itself is a real reflection of her dad’s beliefs. “It’s a nontouristy way of traveling.” He believes foreign travel means more if the traveler can live like the locals.
Taussig contends “Americans don’t really want to be herded about like sheep or cattle.”
His loyal customers, many who return year after year, agree.
“We’ve been on escorted bus tours, cruises, the kind of thing where they take you to a hotel, tell you to put your bags out by 6 and be at the bus by 7:01. But Untours are completely different,” says Jerry Nolan, a retired doctor from North Carolina. “There’s nothing quite so informative and educational as traveling with Untours. You become kissing cousins with the locals.”
As a boy, Taussig lived in a log house on a cattle ranch in Colorado. His mother made his underwear from flour sacks. After getting a college degree, he tried to get into the cattle business, but invested all his money in a bull that was sterile.
“I went broke and got fired before I found my calling,” Taussig says.
Taussig taught history at a high school for 10 years before taking a yearlong sabbatical throughout Europe. He and Norma and Marilee rented apartments, shopped in village markets and traveled by foot, bicycle, train, bus and boat.
“That was an educationally important year for me. It got me in deep touch with other cultures,” Taussig says. He wrote a book called <em>Shoestring Sabbaticals</em> and came up with the idea for Untours: a travel agency that enabled tourists to get to know a place intimately.
What does he think about AIG CEO’s making $17 million, Merrill Lynch brokers bringing in $32 million?
“I’m glad these issues are now being discussed. Piling up money doesn’t bring happiness. Having a huge bank account doesn’t produce a profound contentment in life,” Taussig says. “Wealth gets in the way of human kindness, joy and peace.”
To find out more about traveling with Untours, click here.