Henry Bloch, the “H” in H&R Block, needs no introduction to accountants, or the millions of taxpayers whose returns have been prepared by the firm — and the industry — he spawned.
Yet there are many fascinating details about the man that are revealed in “Many Happy Returns,” a biography written by his son Thomas, who himself has served as president and chief executive at Block.
Henry Bloch is an unlikely American hero, according to his son. Unlikely? Perhaps. Hero? Absolutely. From his days as a navigator onboard a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, to founding and growing H&R Block, to his current charitable and philanthropic endeavors, Henry has lived a life of purpose. The war itself taught Henry to be a fatalist.
“I never knew what the next day would bring,” he said. “But I figured I had a job to do, and I would give it my all.”
The story includes practical wisdom for tax return preparers and business startups, as well as lessons applicable to all facets of life.
“I had felt for some time that there were a lot of lessons to be learned from dad’s experiences,” Thomas told me in an interview. “I discussed this with him, but he always dismissed it. He felt it was vain to have a book written about him. But in a moment of weakness, he agreed to it., and I think he enjoyed the process.”
Tom interviewed his father during regular hour-and-a-half sessions over more than a year. “Although I thought I knew everything there was to know about dad, I actually learned a lot during the process that I didn’t know before,” he said.
An early business plan crafted by older brother Leon listed tax preparation fourth on a list of possible service lines for the brothers’ business — behind bookkeeping, secretarial services and advertising.
Although it is not strictly a business or management book, there are lessons to be learned, observed Thomas. The most important lesson? “Never give up,” he told me. “He certainly didn’t give up. He was relatively unsuccessful as an entrepreneur for eight years. He could so easily have given up, but he never did.” Henry and his brother Richard founded H&R Block in Kansas City, Mo., in 1955, and called it Block instead of Bloch because it was easier for clients to spell.
Another lesson is to do what you love, said Thomas. “Don’t necessarily try to make the most money,” he added. “He was not motivated to get rich. Instead, he wanted to do something where he was making a difference and helping others.”
“That was really a key ingredient in the early success of the firm,” he said. “In the early years they charged $5 per return. He could easily have raised the price, since they were the only game in town for the market they were serving. He didn’t, because he was more interested in solidifying a foothold in the market than in making lots of money. In retrospect it was an important decision to develop the industry rather than maximize profits.”
Despite the current interest in tax reform, Bloch doesn’t envision a major simplification of the Tax Code. “The Tax Code is not used just to raise money for our government to operate, but to achieve social and economic objectives. It will be very difficult to enact major simplification without disrupting those objectives.”
Henry Bloch’s legacy, which continues to this day, includes creating a global industry and helping millions of people. Not bad. As Thomas sums up his father’s success, it is rooted in his response to two fundamental questions: Are you doing what you love, and are you leaving the world a better place?
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