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So Long, Corner Office: Financial "Undertaker" Trades Privilege for Philanthropy

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Bobby Sager made more than he could spend, so now he spends his time in refugee camps and slums.

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Ten years ago, Bobby Sager found himself in an unusually blessed position: He had earned more money than he would ever be able to spend.

The Boston businessman had worked for many years as president of Gordon Brothers Group, a global advisory, acquisition, and capital solutions company. Put more simply, the company was a corporate undertaker, which became well-known for holding money-making going-out-of-business sales in North America.

Under Sager's leadership, from 1986 to 2000, Gordon Brothers boomed: The company expanded to more than 20 offices in North America, Europe, and Asia and acquired or started 12 other companies in just three years.

(Today, Gordon Brothers conducts more than $40 billion of transactions and appraisals annually, which makes it one of the largest providers of these services in the world).

As the company's fortunes grew so did those of Sager, who raked in Sun King-like riches.

A profile of the entrepreneur in The Boston Globe back in September 2000 detailed his good fortune: a massive house that he built out of eight apartments (spectacular enough to attract President Bill Clinton, who visited that summer for a Democratic fundraiser); a living room long enough "to fit a bus or two"; two amphibious cars; and, just for kicks, the Boston Garden parquet floor that Sager bought for $331,000 at an auction.

But by 2000, after amassing such incredible wealth, Sager hungered for a different kind of challenge. The only reason he made money, so he says, was to be able to have choices in life. Now he had all that he ever dreamed of, materially.

"I got to a point where working more and making more money wasn't going to make my life significantly better," he tells Minyanville.

So Sager decided to create a new kind of challenge for himself: He quit working full time and instead devoted himself to giving back to those less fortunate than himself, wherever in the world they might be living.

It was a family adventure: He took his children Tess and Shane, then 10 and 7, out of school and, along with his wife, Elaine, they hit the road, traveling to some of the hardest-hit places on Earth, from Afghanistan to Rwanda, to give away his money and use his entrepreneurial talents to make a difference wherever he could.

The family trekked through poverty-stricken neighborhoods, through refugee camps, slums, and remote villages, and Sager discovered a new calling: practicing what he called "eyeball to eyeball philanthropy."

Instead of writing checks to charities from the comfort of his home, Sager committed himself to a more hands-on style of giving back. "You look people in the eye," he says. "You let them know that they're important enough for you to be there. You feel their humanity and they feel yours."

The impact was direct and, so Sager says, also selfish, truth be told. "I get to have amazing experiences and learn and create. That's the whole point of living a full life."

Over the past 10 years, he has lived on the road off and on, usually traveling about nine months per year. In just the past 12 months, Sager, now 56, has visited Rwanda, Syria, the West Bank, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe. (See The Sager Family Foundation and Roadshow)

Sager emphasizes, though, that he's not interested in just dolling out dollars: He's not a charity in the traditional sense, he says, because he thinks charity can create crippling dependency.

Instead, he thinks of assistance as a businessman, looking to jump-start real initiatives in places where he thinks he can make a significant difference with an eye toward generating impressive returns on investment (ROI).

"For me, it is absolutely critical to feel like I am providing opportunity and not a hand-out," he says.

So, for instance, Sager has helped create programs to train teachers in Pakistan; support micro enterprise in Rwanda and the West Bank; teach Western science to monks in Tibet; train Afghan female doctors to teach community health-care workers; and develop soccer coaches to work as mentors in Iraq. (His efforts even inspired an NBC mini-series, The Philanthropist.)

With all these development programs, Sager says, he views the philanthropy strategically, trying to determine where there's huge upside in terms of ROI.

"The same skills I used to make money -- being a creative problem solver, holding people accountable, and knowing how to do deals -- I now redeploy in the area of making a difference," he says. "Before, my return on investment was pure dollars and cents. Now it's the impact I make on myself, my family, and others."

His advice to those who also want to volunteer their time and abilities is to write a check, sure, but also actively engage the world around them, whether that's in far-flung locales or right around the corner from their homes.

"If all you do is write a check then you are not deploying your skills and you're missing out on those human moments", he says, adding, "The critical aspect is to be hands-on."

Recently, Todd sat down with our man of the hour. See the interview below.


No positions in stocks mentioned.
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