Successful but penniless CEO wins Ribby Award

Hal Taussig

Untours founder and CEO Hal Taussig

Previous Ribby Awards have gone to CEOs who have sacrificed personal security and comfort to help their employees make it through the recession. This month’s Ribby goes to Untours founder and CEO Hal Taussig, who has happily given away everything he and the profitable company have earned for more than a decade.

The 85-year-old Taussig, and his wife Norma, founded Untours in the 1970s offering international cultural immersion vacations that accommodate American travelers in private homes rather than hotels. In the 1980s, he had an epiphany when he wrote a $20,000 check – all the money he had in the world – for a real estate deal. He felt liberated and decided to give away everything he earned from that day forward.

He is both an avowed capitalist and an opponent of consumerism. In 1992, the Taussigs started the Untours Foundation to give “a hand up, not a hand out” to economically deprived entrepreneurs with low interest loans ranging from $1,000 – $300,000. The $5 million plus dollars Taussig donated to the foundation (100% of Untours’ profits) has funded dozens of companies throughout the world that have paid back the loans and created thousands of jobs. At Untours, Taussig pays himself a $6,000 a year salary (because the IRS accused him of avoiding taxes by working for free) and donates all of that too. He lives on Social Security.

“I think it’s false to define capitalism as selfish,” Taussig has been quoted as saying. “Charity and taxes are not going to make a better world or a more just world, but businesses can take a lead in doing that.”

For Taussig, the problem is not creating wealth, it is what we do with it. He calls consumerism a “social evil” and “corrupting to our humanity.” He says that we follow the false notion that having more things leads to a richer life.

He has also driven and supported the principles of Fair Trade to make sure producers in America and developing countries are paid equitable prices for their products. In 2006, he convinced Media, PA, the Philadelphia suburb where he lives, to become certified as the United State’s first Fair Trade Town. The movement is rapidly growing and today America has 13 Fair Trade Towns including Brattleboro, VT; Milwaukee, WI; San Francisco, CA; and Montclair, NJ.

In 1999, Untours won the $250,000 Newman’s Own/George Award for corporate philanthropy, given by the late actor Paul Newman and the late John F. Kennedy Jr. When he went to New York to pick up the check, which he of course gave away immediately, he stayed in a youth hostel.

The Ribby Award is supposed to be about sacrifice, but Hal Taussig has willingly used his success to give rather than acquire. The Ribby Award is also about setting an example and Hal Taussig takes that category easily.

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