Lessons from an accounting legend for all entrepreneurs

Lessons from an accounting legend for all entrepreneurs
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Every accountant knows that numbers tell a story. The narrative can be powerful and revealing. Sometimes, it can point to broader trends that change the way we see and conduct business, a fact illustrated by the far-reaching influence of Henry Bloch, the entrepreneur and tax leader, who died recently at the age of 96.

Bloch and his brother Richard founded tax preparation giant H&R Block (altering the spelling of their last name to avoid mispronunciation). The business was almost an afterthought: The brothers initially launched a bookkeeping enterprise but pivoted when demand for accounting services spiked.

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Seizing opportunity, the Blochs reorganized their firm into what would ultimately become a leading personal income tax return preparation company.

Timing was central to their success; in the mid 1950s, just as they were getting their start, the IRS decided to phase out its practice of preparing tax returns for free. But there was something else at play, as well, a recognition that getting ahead in business meant adopting new models suited to evolving needs.

Henry’s innovation was applying the concept of franchising, broadening his reach by sowing the seeds of a personal tax preparation empire that would eventually circle the globe.

It is a lesson in adaptation that today’s accountants would be wise to heed. In an era of corporate accountability, ours is a profession beset by challenges and equally replete with opportunities. 

Revolutions in technology, from data analytics to artificial intelligence, are reshaping the accounting industry. Many businesses are relentlessly investing in technology to continue to obtain a competitive advantage, and accountants must match that effort in order to remain relevant. 

Keeping up with the pace of change, not just vis-à-vis technology but also in terms of the pressure on accountants and the expectations put upon them by clients and our broader society, is another looming issue.

We need to think seriously about our purpose — about how we best serve the people who retain us by maximizing profitability and transparency. 

This brings us back to Henry Bloch and his singular insight. He sensed a shift in attitudes about accounting, understanding that clients saw value in what accountants brought to the table and pioneering a method of bringing that value to scale.

Then, he took a leap of faith. It was a dual emphasis on skill and entrepreneurship that the best accounting schools offer today.

As educators and professionals, we teach students to master key accounting concepts. We offer them a framework for internalizing professional ethics. But equally important is equipping them to meet their moment, to survey the landscape and, as Bloch did, jump into something new — to be true entrepreneurs.

This is Bloch’s true legacy for the accounting profession: not just building a billion-dollar business, but also finding the courage to strike out in a completely different direction.

For young accountants, and young people in any business, the bottom line is clear: Numbers tell a story, yet often it is preparing for, and embracing, the unknown that fully completes the equation.

William Holder is the dean of the Leventhal School of Accounting at the University of Southern California, the Alan Casden Dean’s chair and a professor of accounting.