H&R Block Inc. has chosen Jeff Jones – the former president of Uber who walked out over the company’s “beliefs and approach to leadership” amid a sexism scandal – as its chief executive officer.
Jones had been at Uber only six months, having left Target where he was marketing chief to walk into what turned out to be a morass under then-CEO Travis Kalanik.
Since leaving Uber, Jones has declined to speak about Uber’s situation, referring only to a statement issued at the time about the company’s leadership approach.
H&R Block said Tuesday that Jones starts as its CEO Oct. 9.
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He was in the company’s Kansas City headquarters on Monday and spoke with The Star. Jones plans to move his family here, where he said many friends and family have lived.
“No one knows we’re coming yet. So I know when the news breaks there’ll be lots of people excited to welcome us,” Jones said.
H&R Block employees and shareholders have been waiting for a new CEO since Bill Cobb announced his retirement in May after six years at the helm. The company recently suffered a difficult year under Cobb but showed surprising strength in the tax season that ended last April.
Like Cobb, this is Jones’ first CEO post atop a publicly traded company. Still, controversy has pushed the 49-year-old executive into the national media spotlight more than once.
Jones walked out of Uber’s executive suites in March as the company was under several attacks, including charges of sexism and sexual harassment that were detailed in a scathing blog by a former engineering employee.
Although he was not implicated, Jones declined to talk about the situation in which some Uber executives reportedly were dismissed. At the time, he issued a brief statement.
“I joined Uber because of its mission, and the challenge to build global capabilities that would help the company mature and thrive long-term. It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business,” his statement said.
Jones’ short stint as president also included what many describe as a disastrous Facebook session with Uber drivers. The company also saw a customer revolt called #DeleteUber that reportedly saw 200,000 customers drop the app in one weekend in January. Jones said he remains an Uber customer but also uses Lyft.
Uber’s CEO and co-founder Kalanik resigned in June.
Before joining Uber, Jones had been marketing chief of Target when a 19-day-long data breach just before Christmas in 2013 sent the giant retailer into brand-damage control. That episode toppled the CEO Gregg Steinhafel and sparked employee reports painting “a culture that is in crisis” which Jones acknowledged was partly true.
The lessons, Jones said, follow him to H&R Block.
“When you’re guided by the customer, that gives you great clarity in how you think about emerging from a crisis,” Jones said. “Should we face a crisis at Block, my first place will be to understand what we’ve done with the client and how do we, depending on the circumstance, focus on rebuilding and repairing whatever that situation may have been.”
At H&R Block, Jones said his mission will be to grow and evolve the company.
Block has struggled against a decline in the number of taxpayers it helps at its own stores and stores owned by franchisees. It has seen growth in its digital tax products but faces competition from digital leader Intuit’s TurboTax.
Block’s growth, Jones said, may well come from diversifying beyond its traditional tax preparation business.
It’s a move other CEOs have taken at Block and with sometimes poor results. Investor Richard Breeden led a shareholder battle at Block in 2007 that led to shedding various businesses including a subprime mortgage operation, brokerage business and an accounting and business consulting service.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned from history,” Jones said. “Ideas in the past may have exactly been the right idea but at the wrong time, the wrong context, perhaps the wrong execution.”
Jones has the backing of the board of directors that hired him to seek growth where he finds it.
Chairman Robert Gerard, who attended the interview, said the company has not defined a path to growth, but he called diversification inevitable even after acknowledging mixed results in the past.
“That does not mean this company can remain static and milk itself into oblivion. That’s really not our outlook for the brand,” Gerard said.
And he said growth may mean something that “looks a lot like diversification.”
Step one for Jones, however, is to get better acquainted with the company’s history, its employees and its business.
“Starting tomorrow, H&R Block will be doing my taxes,” Jones said.
He has a session set up next month with co-founder Henry Bloch and his son Tom Bloch, who has served previously as the company’s CEO.
“How lucky am I to be coming into this company and to still have access to them? I don’t want to miss that chance... to gain that wisdom,” Jones said.
The next day is H&R Block’s annual meeting, and he plans to attend. The next week, he’ll be at a sales and service conference in Las Vegas that kicks off the company’s push toward tax season.
And Jones plans something of a listening tour to learn from Block employees, its tax preparers and its clients.