Henry Bloch, co-founder of H&R Block, dies at 96
After returning from military service in World War II, 24-year-old Henry Bloch started a two-man bookkeeping shop in his home town of Kansas City, Mo., that offered tax preparation as a sideline.
He spent years building the business and placed a help-wanted newspaper advertisement seeking a full-time accountant. The only one to respond was his mother, who recommended that he keep the business in the family by hiring his younger brother, Richard.
The business would become H&R Block, the world’s largest tax-services provider. Henry Bloch, died April 23 at 96 in Kansas City. The company confirmed the death in a statement but did not provide further details.
The business boomed in the mid-1950s as the Internal Revenue Service began discontinuing its free tax-preparation services, and the Bloch brothers began advertising their discount tax service in a local paper. The company became known by the brothers’ initials, substituting the last letter in Bloch to “K” out of fear that customers might mispronounce or misspell the name.
Richard Bloch once said he was worried that customers might say the firm had “blotched” their taxes. Their family name was, in fact, pronounced “block.”
Henry Bloch served as the company’s chief executive and Richard was chairman. In its first tax season, H&R Block prepared about 2,700 income tax returns and brought in $20,000. The following year, revenue tripled.
H&R Block, which went public in 1962, expanded rapidly and eventually had hundreds of offices nationally and a presence internationally. To meet demand, the Bloch brothers created income tax schools to train tax preparers.
Starting in 1972, Henry Bloch began appearing in TV ads for his company – a rare step for a chief executive at the time. “They thought that would have more of an effect on customers than an announcer saying, ‘Go to H&R Block,’ ” Bloch told USA Today in 2005.
Bloch, who conveyed a trustworthy Midwestern persona, spent 20 years as the public face of the company in those commercials, touting 17 reasons why taxpayers should trust H&R Block with their taxes. The ads typically ending with the catchphrase, “What can we find for you?”
The tax-preparation ads were parodied on comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” which featured John Belushi in a skit as “H.R. Rock,” a slippery tax adviser who asked prospective clients questions such as, “About how many children do you have?”
Bloch’s commercials proved so effective that other businesses hired him to star in their commercials. He hawked cars, airlines and hotels; he once jumped out of a suitcase in an ad for the Comfort Inn hotel chain, according to Investor’s Business Daily.
Richard Bloch, who survived a cancer scare, left the company in 1982 to focus his energies on cancer research advocacy. He died in 2004. Henry Bloch stepped down as chief executive in 1992 and retired as chairman in 2000.
Since its inception, H&R Block has prepared more than 625 million tax returns and now prepares one in every seven U.S. taxpayers’ returns, according to the company’s web site. The company’s charitable H&R Block Foundation, founded in 1974, has donated millions of dollars to education and health grant-making.
Bloch once told The Washington Post that he constantly searched for ways to make topics such as tax reform relatable and understandable to the general public during interviews and lectures. “I feel a little like Elizabeth Taylor’s 10th husband,” he quipped. “He knew what he was supposed to do, but he didn’t know how to make it interesting.”
Henry Wollman Bloch was born July 30, 1922, in Kansas City, where his father was a lawyer. Both parents encouraged their three sons – Henry was the second-born – to be entrepreneurial and go into business with each another. Their great aunt, philanthropist Kate Wollman, staked them $5,000 to start the tax business.
After graduating in 1944 with a mathematics degree from the University of Michigan, Bloch served in the Army Air Forces as a navigator during World War II and flew more than 30 combat missions over Europe. His military decorations include four awards of the Air Medal.
On the G.I. Bill, he did graduate work in statistical control at Harvard Business School.
In retirement, Bloch was active in charitable work in Kansas City. He contributed millions of dollars to St. Luke’s Hospital and developed the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
He also donated an extensive art collection – including many 19th-century French impressionist paintings and a portrait of his wife, Marion, by Andy Warhol – to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The museum’s Bloch Building, named in his honor and designed by Steven Holl Architects, was cited in 2007 by Time magazine as the world’s top new “architectural marvel.”
In 1990, Bloch made headlines after he was denied membership in the Kansas City Country Club, ostensibly because he was Jewish. Professional golfer Tom Watson quit the club in what he called a protest of its discriminatory policies.
After Watson’s resignation and the negative press that followed, the club invited Bloch to re-apply. He did and was offered membership, which he accepted. Watson later rejoined the club.
Despite the controversy, Bloch refused to speak ill of the club and even managed to display a sense of humor.
“I got questionnaires from newspapers all over the world because of Tom Watson,” Bloch told the Kansas City Star in 2012. “They said can you give us a quote on that. I said I’ll be glad to… . I said, ‘It’s the first time I ever made the sports page.’ “
His wife of 62 years, Marion Helzberg Bloch, died in 2013. Survivors include four children, Thomas Bloch, Robert Bloch, Mary Jo Brown and Elizabeth Uhlmann; 12 grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.
Thomas Bloch wrote a 2011 biography of his father, called “Many Happy Returns.”