Jeff Jones’ journey to Kansas City — winding through hangouts with popstar Justin Timberlake, dinner with Oprah, and a stint driving one of the world’s most dominant sharing economy companies — has been transformative, the H&R Block CEO said.
And if the homegrown corporate juggernaut he now leads is to meet its stretch potential, the tax preparation firm will have to be equally willing to evolve and innovate, Jones told a group of curious entrepreneurs and businesses leaders who gathered Tuesday for the Kansas City Tech Council’s CEO speaker series.
That means reconnecting with H&R Block’s birth place, as well as tapping into the electric feel Jones has observed within the Kansas City startup ecosystem, he said with an air of curiosity and motivation.
Entrepreneurial energy isn’t a new source of inspiration for Jones. The executive grew up within a family of serial entrepreneurs in small town West Virginia. His parents owned discos and nightclubs, in addition to a slew of other small business endeavors, he said.
Although not every venture was a success — the family wound up bankrupt at one point; a story Jones proudly tells — each opportunity cultivated community, he said.
“When I was in junior high, we lost everything,” Jones said, recalling an entrepreneurial gamble that went awry. Eventually, his father found success with a series of tanning salons on college campuses — proof that perseverance has its rewards, he said.
A first-generation college student with an impressive resume — rounded out with executive roles at companies like Gap Inc., Target, and Uber — Jones wasn’t sure of his career’s direction at the time he was lured to the City of Fountains, he revealed candidly.
“[At Uber] I learned that when your values are really clear, it impacts culture. In that way, [Uber] wasn’t for me,” Jones said of his decision to leave the tech firm after seven months as “President of Ride Sharing” — knowing full well he’d wind up jobless.
“I used to say to my team, ‘Job security is knowing you’re good enough to get another job. That’s it,’” the CEO said of his experience in failing forward.
Inspiration from Henry Bloch’s core values
As he walked from the gate at Kansas City’s airport in 2017, bags in hand toward his near future, Jones immediately knew something about his new home felt different.
“I literally walked out on the street in October  and everybody was wearing Kansas City merchandise — not just Royals and Chiefs, or Sporting — just the city! Of all the cities I’ve been to, lived in, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much local pride,” he said.
Such support hasn’t waned in the year since his arrival, Jones said, expressing astonishment and acknowledging his career gamble paid off.
Seeing Kansas City’s willingness to help boost its own has further fueled Jones’ desire to bolster H&R Block’s presence in the community, he said. It’s a line of thinking that will elevate the company and allow it to plant new roots within the Kansas City innovation space, he explained.
“Building connections and learning more, those are the kinds of things that I want us to be a part of in the future,” Jones said of the way H&R Block intends to step out of the shadow cast by the company’s seemingly inaccessible corporate culture.
Supporting the city’s startups and entrepreneurs means reaching out to a new generation of people in the mold of Henry Bloch, the company’s founder and local thought leader, who once wore the same shoes current startup minds have since tied to their own feet, Jones acknowledged.
“When I think about all the things that Henry did, how he started the company, why he started the company, those are all part of our core values. It’s all about local,” Jones said.
Wearing Kansas City’s brand of innovation
While the executive is still learning about Kansas City’s startup community — tapping the expertise of such entrepreneur leaders as Toby Rush of Zoloz/Ant Financial and Victor Hwang of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation — Jones is eager to formulate a strategy for H&R Block to embrace innovation and technology to help write the 63-year-old company’s next chapter.
“[Right now] we’ve got five or six big areas of technology investment that are all multi-year,” he said, teasing coming product offerings and tech rollouts. “They’re not all brand new, but the level of focus is on brand, what we’re doing in our offices to improve quality is brand new.”
Improved pricing and virtual tax services are also on the way, he added.
Jones isn’t shy in his belief that the company’s future will be embodied by new ideas and recognition of past mistakes. That includes reversing tactics that previously hurt the company’s bottom line, as well as those that damaged workplace culture, helping cause a rift in community confidence in H&R Block, he said.
Much of the new direction will be shaped by the stalwart workforce already behind the scenes at the firm, Jones said.
“We have to invest in our people to invest in technology,” he made clear. “When business shifts and we start innovating more and momentum builds, our associates wear the H&R Block brand as much as the Kansas City brand because it now represents something they feel good about. To me, that marriage is what we have to accomplish.”
There’s a slippery slope between tradition and irrelevance, Jones said profoundly.
Both H&R Block and the entrepreneurial ecosystem stand to learn lessons from each other, the CEO alluded. Allowing the two worlds to collide is the only way to discover what such lessons could offer, he said.