Originally published Feb. 27, 2011
Henry Bloch and his brother, Richard Bloch, founded H&R Block in 1955. Bloch retired in 2000 but continues to do work for many Kansas City nonprofit and civic organizations. In November, Wiley published a book by Bloch’s son Thomas Bloch called “Many Happy Returns: The Story of Henry Bloch, America’s Tax Man.”
This conversation took place in Henry Bloch’s office on the Country Club Plaza.
Do you do any work at all for H&R Block now?
No, unfortunately. I miss it, and they miss me. (Laughs.) I think they do.
What do you miss the most?
Running the company.
You enjoyed the management part of the job?
Yes. I had good people help me.
Is the secret to running a successful company listening to other people?
It is in my case.
I always kept my office door open, and I used to love it when my right hand man would come in and ask if he could shut the door. He would say, “Do you mind if I disagree with you?” and I couldn’t wait to hear what he complained about.
Because I wanted to improve my business. I wanted the company to be better. I was doing the best I could, but I wasn’t brilliant. I was a “C” student. What he said was usually right.
In “Many Happy Returns, “ you give credit for the idea behind your company to John White, a former ad layout employee of The Kansas City Star.
Yes. We used to do his taxes for $5, and we bought display ads from him for the bookkeeping business after we told him we had quit preparing taxes. He went back to The Star and designed an ad to make a separate business out of tax preparation because he wanted us to keep doing his. If he hadn’t come in with that ad, we wouldn’t have started H&R Block. He was right. I like to listen to other people to get their advice, I really do.
The book jacket says you are a tycoon. That’s a fun word —do you like it?
Not especially. I don’t feel like I am one.
I think I’m a very ordinary person. Every time I took long vacations, the company always did better when I was gone. A tycoon wouldn’t say that.
So many things in Kansas City have your name on them. What do you think of the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art?
I like it very much, even though I didn’t understand it when I was chairman of the building committee.
Sometimes it’s difficult for lay people to understand architectural drawings.
I don’t know. It was hard for me.
What do you think of the H&R Block building downtown?
They built it after I retired. I never thought we could afford it. I think it’s the prettiest building downtown. I can say that because I had nothing to do with it.
In the book you say your mother liked reading Emerson, and one of her favorite quotes was, “Every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
One person, now we would say person. But I think it’s true. I think the Bloch Building is the shadow of Marc Wilson, the retired director of the Nelson. He really understood that building. It ran way over budget but turned out very well.
Which institutions are you most proud of that are lengthened shadows of you?
Oh. (Pause.) My wife.
How is Marion today?
She’s OK. She had brain surgery more than 20 years ago because she had brain cancer. She had a lot of radiation, which I’m sure saved her life; they only gave her 90 days to live at first. She’s having a lot of problems. I just want her to stay like she is. I go home every day and sit and hold her hand. We listen to music together.
What are the things that still bring you pleasure when you are with her?
Well, she sleeps most of the time. But she’s woken up the last two Saturdays. It’s interesting, when she does wake up then we call the children -- we have four children, 12 grandchildren and five great grandchildren -- and they all want to come over. They put up with me, but they love her.
Is she able to communicate with you?
Yes. When she is not sleeping. It’s not very often, but when she does wake up, sometimes she opens her eyes. Her mind is pretty good.
Is she able to speak?
She does speak. Not very clearly. I don’t understand her too well. But our main caregiver understands her pretty well.
Does she respond when you speak to her?
Yes. Basically I only tell her two things: that I love her and that she’s perfect. When we test her blood pressure and so on, she always wants to know how she is, and I say, “It’s perfect.”
When you hold her hand does she respond physically?
Yes. We have a thing -- we squeeze twice. That means we love each other.