Diane Mastrull: Planning for the post-Taussig years at Untours

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Hal Taussig, founder and president of Untours, a travel company with profits supporting the Untours Foundation. 11/27/12 ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )

Hal Taussig's bicycle is permanently parked.

Media's philanthropic-to-the-extreme entrepreneur gave up his two-wheeler just a few years ago, reluctantly abandoning what had been his routine travel mode since the 1970s.

Having turned 88 in November, he relies now on lifts from family and friends - and a cane the doggedly independent Taussig grudgingly indulges.

Sometimes, words don't come as easily as they once did. During those "senior moments," he turns to whomever is near to help fill in the blanks.

Thus, reality is sinking in at the minimalist offices of Untours, a travel-planning business, and the Untours Foundation, a small-business support agency:

Their founder and lead social conscience - a father of three who has lived much of his frills-free adult life giving away his wealth - will not be around forever. The delicate process of succession planning is under way, with Taussig's blessing.

"I don't think anything should be forever," the former Colorado cattle rancher, wearing jeans and the only pair of shoes he claims to own, said last week during one of his now-infrequent visits to the office.

Those involved in planning for the future say the goal is to honor Taussig's uncompromising mission: to foster more social-mindedness and lend a financial hand to businesses committed to sustainability and job creation.

But already there has been deviation from the Taussig model, a change designed to enhance the health of both Untours entities and to help ensure there's money available to support the care of Taussig and Norma, his wife of 66 years, who was crippled by a stroke in 1999.

Last year, the foundation board voted to suspend diverting profit from the travel business to the foundation, which Taussig formed in 1993 as a vehicle to distribute his wealth. More than $2 million in direct funds have flowed from travel business to foundation, and an additional $3 million in in-kind services, said Elizabeth Killough, who has managed the foundation for eight years.

"I think, until we know the full needs of Hal and Norma going forward, the board will want to keep funds as a safety net, since that is the Taussigs' only net," Killough said. "While this is a very business-centric board, it puts Hal and Norma first, even if that is not Hal's wishes."

The business orientation of that 10-member board is another change designed for the post-Taussig years.

Ultimately, the foundation will inherit the travel business, which gives clients the opportunity to develop a deeper appreciation of a country's culture by living in a region for a short time rather than just visiting it. With 14 employees and nearly $5 million in annual revenue, it is run by the couple's nephew Brian Taussig-Lux.

Killough said the takeover plan was devised about 10 years ago, when nonprofits owning for-profit companies were not as common as they are now. It's just one example of Taussig's comfort with being on the leading edge, she said.

Oddly, Taussig doesn't believe in nonprofits. That's why the Untours Foundation issues low-interest loans instead of grants. In all, 275 loans totaling $7 million have been issued - half locally - to businesses including a bicycle-based laundry-delivery service and a company that makes purses out of plastic bags, Killough said.

Delinquency rates have varied, with Taussig still awaiting payments on money he lent in the early years, she said.

When Jon Blum, a founder of socially responsible investing at Merrill Lynch in Philadelphia, retired in 2009, he called Killough and offered his consulting help to the foundation free of charge. She took him up on it.

The economy was in postrecession agony, which was wreaking havoc on some of Untours' loan recipients; others were simply "taking advantage" of Taussig's patient generosity by not repaying what they owed, Blum said.

He suggested that, "instead of just lending money and expecting it to come back, let's take a position in the companies," Blum said in an interview last week. "When you take an equity position, you sit on the board and get involved in the company."

Untours currently holds five equity positions, and though Blum "is definitely getting us to look more seriously at equity," it's not likely to be the foundation's exclusive form of investing, Killough said.

On another money matter, Taussig has relented ever so slightly. About two years after Killough's arrival at Untours, she talked her boss into allowing her to solicit donations from travel clients once a year. Since 2006, that effort has raised $500,000.

Last week, Taussig hinted at a willingness for more compromise - this time on his directive that Killough never rename the foundation after him.

When I suggested that, given his widespread popularity, a foundation bearing his name might enhance its fund-raising abilities, Taussig smiled.

"If that helped raise money," he said, "I probably could be convinced."

 


Diane Mastrull: A Helping Hand

To donate to the Untours Foundation and learn more about its mission and its link to the Untours travel agency, go to http://www.untoursfoundation.org/donation.html.


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Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mastrud.