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April 23, 2019, 11:30 p.m. EDT

H&R Block co-founder Henry Bloch dies at 96

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By James R. Hagerty

Henry Bloch, who died Tuesday at age 96, nearly blew his chance to become the "H" in H&R Block.

Mr. Bloch and his younger brother Richard, who ran a small, struggling bookkeeping firm in Kansas City, Mo., in the mid-1950s, saw tax preparation as peripheral to their business and planned to eliminate it. But one client, John White, an ad salesman for the Kansas City Star, urged them to try running ads offering to prepare individuals' federal and state taxes for $5. The ads brought in such a flood of business they decided to focus on tax returns.

"We knew we had a winning poker hand," Mr. Bloch said later. H&R Block now has about 12,000 company-owned and franchised offices world-wide.

They succeeded partly because they made their firm's name -- an easier-to-pronounce version of Bloch -- synonymous with tax preparation. They also benefited from the ever-growing complexity of tax rules.

"You can either have a simple tax return or a fair tax return, but you can't have both," Henry Bloch told a Swedish business magazine in 1986.

He was a fixture in 1980s TV commercials touting 17 reasons for individuals to dump their wads of receipts and W-2 forms on the desk of an H&R Block employee rather than risking their own calculations. He promised H&R Block would find deductions unimagined by the do-it-yourself crowd. "What can we find for you?" he intoned.

Mr. Bloch's TV salesmanship was so admired that Subaru of America Inc. hired him as a pitchman for its cars in the late 1980s.

His success allowed him to collect French impressionist paintings, a hobby he took up while touring France with his family in the 1970s. In 1975, he commissioned Andy Warhol to paint a portrait of his wife, Marion. Mr. Bloch, assuming that the artist would want a plush backdrop, rented a hotel suite with a fireplace in New York. Mr. Warhol showed up with a Polaroid camera to record Mrs. Bloch's image and edited the fireplace out of the portrait.

The Blochs later donated works by artists including Monet, van Gogh, Cézanne and Renoir to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. He also was a major backer of the management school of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, among other causes.

Henry Wollman Bloch was born July 30, 1922, and grew up in Kansas City, where his father was a lawyer. He earned a bachelor's degree in math at the University of Michigan in 1944. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps as a navigator on B-17 bombers and survived 32 combat missions over Germany.

Mr. Bloch planned a math-teaching career, but his mother urged him to aim higher. After an unhappy year as a stockbroker in Kansas City, he teamed up with his older brother, Leon, to offer bookkeeping and other services to small firms. When Leon Bloch left the company to study law, their brother Richard took his place.

Henry Bloch was named president of H&R Block in 1962, when the company went public, and added the title of CEO in 1974. He retired as CEO in 1992 but remained chairman until 2000.

His son Tom, who succeeded him as CEO in 1992, resigned three years later to become a math teacher. "I want to give of myself in ways that aren't possible in my current position," Tom Bloch told The Wall Street Journal in 1995 when he announced his decision to leave the firm co-founded by his father. Tom Bloch recalled that his father was deeply disappointed but said: "I want you to do what you want to do."

Henry Bloch is survived by Tom and three other children, 12 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. His wife, Marion, died in 2013. They were married for 62 years.

In a 2015 interview with the Kansas City Star, Mr. Bloch recalled that he often brought his children along on business trips when they were young. "When I met with one of our managers, I didn't want to stay up all night talking, so if I had one of my children with me I could say I got to get my son or my daughter to bed. That worked really well."

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

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