Henry Bloch, H&R Block’s Co-Founding TV Pitchman, Dies at 96

(Bloomberg) -- Henry Bloch, who co-founded H&R Block with his brother and expanded it into the biggest U.S. tax preparer as its president and silver-haired television pitchman, has died. He was 96.

He died Tuesday, according to a statement from the company. No details were given.

Henry Bloch, H&R Block’s Co-Founding TV Pitchman, Dies at 96

H&R Block Inc., based in Kansas City, Missouri, says it has done more than 680 million tax returns around the globe in the past six decades. The firm expanded into brokerage and banking services in the 1990s and 2000s.

Henry Bloch co-founded the company in 1955 with his younger brother, Richard, who died in 2004. Henry managed the company, while Richard focused on opening franchises across the U.S. They used a tweaked spelling of their surname for the company, reasoning that “Block” would be easier for people to remember and spell.

Henry Bloch appeared in the company’s television advertising from 1972 into the 1990s. “We’re America’s tax team,” he said. “Put us to work for you.”

A public company since 1962, H&R Block made several stabs at diversifying over the years. From 1980 to 1997 it owned CompuServe Inc., one of the earliest dial-up Internet access providers, and also made forays into brokerage services, mortgages and temporary personnel services.

“Through his honesty and integrity, Henry embodied the best of American business, entrepreneurship and philanthropy,” Jeff Jones, the company’s chief executive officer, said in the statement. “In so many ways, he was ahead of his time and a model for today’s entrepreneur.”

Denied Membership

His failure to win admission to the Kansas City Country Club, which had no Jewish or black members, drew headlines in 1990. The incident became a national news story after professional golfer Tom Watson, who had learned the sport there and whose wife and children were Jewish, said he quit in protest because he believed Bloch’s application was denied based on religious bias. The club’s board responded to the uproar by voting to approve Bloch. Watson subsequently rejoined the club.

Bloch’s son, Thomas, succeeded him as president in 1989 and CEO in 1992 before resigning in 1995. Henry Bloch remained chairman until 2000, then watched with dismay as the company, outside family control for the first time, weathered crises and management shakeups.

“Sitting on the sidelines, I’ve observed the company make missteps and, in my opinion, take too long to address them,” he wrote in an introduction to his son’s 2010 book, “Many Happy Returns: The Story of Henry Bloch, America’s Tax Man.”

Those blunders included committing errors in its own internal accounting, which caused the company to overstate net income for the 2003 and 2004 fiscal years by $91.1 million. In 2007 the company removed its chairman and chief executive, Mark Ernst, following $1 billion of losses tied to subprime mortgages.

Studied Mathematics

Henry Wollman Bloch was born on July 30, 1922, in Kansas City, the middle son of three born to Leon Bloch, a lawyer, and the former Hortense Bienenstock, known as Horty. She named her second son after her uncle, Henry Wollman, a prominent New York City lawyer whose family donated the money that created Wollman ice-skating rink in Central Park.

Bloch began his college studies at the University of Kansas City -- now the University of Missouri at Kansas City -- and finished at the University of Michigan, where he majored in mathematics and excelled at playing bridge. His studies were interrupted by his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a navigator on a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber completing 31 combat missions over Germany from a base in the U.K.

In 1946, he and older brother, Leon, opened United Business Co., a bookkeeping firm that offered tax preparation as an add-on for its small-business clients. When Leon departed for law school, Bloch agreed to their mother’s wishes that he hire his younger brother, Richard.

Initiates Advertising

At the advice of a client who worked in display advertising at the Kansas City Star newspaper, they took a shot at trumpeting their tax work in ads in January 1955. As it turned out, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service was discontinuing what had been free tax-preparation service, and the Blochs found their work in demand.

By mid-1955, they had replaced United Business with a new company, H&R Block, focusing on income-tax returns.

Its first expansion was to New York City, where it opened offices in 1956 just as the IRS was discontinuing free counseling there as well. Both brothers wanted to keep their families in Kansas City, so they began their practice of franchising new H&R Block offices.

By 1962, when it sold shares to the public, the company had 206 offices and almost $800,000 in revenue. In fiscal 2016, it had 12,000 retail offices and reported revenue of more than $3 billion.

Bloch and his wife, Marion, had four children: Robert, Thomas, Mary Jo and Elizabeth. Marion Bloch died in 2013.

The family’s philanthropy included donating $32 million to endow the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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