After a bust, a tax franchise business boom

January 25, 2018 : Mary Ann Luther

Tax entrepreneurs Jesse and Doris Willard married young. Really young.

Back in 1979, they were California teens with a California dream: to make their own way in the Golden State. And they wanted to do it together.

“Doris was 15 and I was 16, we were on our own, and I needed a job,” says Jesse Willard. “I looked in the newspaper and saw an ad for a tax preparer, and thought, ‘I can do that.’ So, I got some tax materials and studied. Then I applied for the job.”

It was a bust. But it wouldn’t be the last.

“I went to the company that advertised for the job, took a test, and failed miserably,” says Willard, who is now an enrolled agent – a tax expert who can represent clients in IRS matters.

“But the boss liked my motivation and he hired me as an office helper, kind of like a client service professional.”

In between copying tax returns and running errands, Willard studied taxes some more. Eventually, he did tax returns for the same company, then moved on to another independent firm for a while. Over time – and with mounting hands-on experience – he realized he could be his own boss.

A leap forward

Willard made the leap in the late ‘80s, when he and Doris – who also prepared taxes – started their own independent tax prep firm in Oakland, California. Their new digs were in an office next to a beauty salon, where they eagerly served tax clients.

Eventually, the Willards moved to another Oakland location and opened a second tax office in Modesto. They also added real estate to their entrepreneurial mix, and soon had a booming independent business – a mashup of taxes and real estate.

“Doris was a real estate broker and I was a real estate agent. We did loan originations, worked on commercial projects and, of course, continued to do taxes.”

Then in 2007, the bottom of the real estate market opened up like a trap door. And the Willards’ real estate business fell to pieces.

Down, not out

“Half of our business was real estate and half was taxes,” says Willard. “We lost 60 percent of the equity in our real estate holdings and all of our real estate income.”

The future looked fuzzy, but the Willards refocused. And they decided to make a 2,500-mile leap.

“Our daughters were going to college in Augusta, Georgia, which wasn’t hit as hard by the real estate downturn,” says Willard. “And we felt like we were done with California. So, we decided to move to Georgia, too, and figure things out when we got there.”

Lock, stock and barrel

“There” turned out to be Hephzibah, Georgia, an Augusta suburb. And “things” was a job Willard picked up, doing taxes for an independent tax prep firm – one that didn’t run as well as Willard would like.

“After a while, Doris and I decided, ‘We’ve got to get back into our own tax business. We love it and we’re good at it,’” says Willard.

“If we wanted to recover financially, we realized the tax profession was going to create that path. So, we opened an office in our home in Georgia and did about 50 returns our first year.”

Soon, locals got wind of the Willards’ tax expertise and literally started knocking on their door. Fifty returns swelled to 200. Then 300. Then 400. And more. The Willards also continued to do taxes, long distance, for California clients who figuratively followed them cross-country.

“It got a bit much to do taxes at home, so we rented space in our current building and eventually bought the place,” says Willard. “It’s where we’ve been ever since.”

A business proposition

Satisfied clients weren’t the only people who appreciated the Willards’ tax expertise. H&R Block got wind of it, too. In 2010, H&R Block invited the Willards to become H&R Block franchisees.

However, “We weren’t ready,” says Willard. “After all, Doris and I had just started on our business again.”

But the idea of joining H&R Block lingered like sweet perfume.

“Doris and I began talking more about selling our business to H&R Block and becoming franchisees,” says Willard. “We wanted to grow clients – and our retirement account. And if we were going to join a national brand, we needed to join the best.

“H&R Block had everything that could help us grow – the right infrastructure and technology, equipment, training and back-end support.”

Another leap

Finally, in 2015, the Willards made another leap: They joined H&R Block, running their tax business as H&R Block franchisees.

“Once we made the decision to join H&R Block, the transition was fairly seamless,” says Willard, who is also a master tax advisor. “They trained us on H&R Block systems and gave us all the onboarding, marketing and branding help we needed.”

Today, after two years as franchisees, the Willards’ business continues to grow: They’ve added employees, a second location, and together, they write upwards of 1,000 tax returns a year – quite a leap from their original 50.

In appreciation, the Willards gladly share their success. They’re deeply involved in their community – “That’s huge to us,” says Willard – where they:

  • Started an advocacy group called I Breathe. I Rise, which fights sexual abuse in schools and supports other social justice projects
  • Spearheaded a school supply giveaway for underprivileged children, donating over $7,000 in supplies last year
  • Sponsored a computer lab and donated computers to the South Augusta Family YMCA

Sweet success

After their first year as franchisees, the Willards earned an H&R Block honor called Featured Franchisee Rookie of the Year, for their robust business results and community efforts.

“We went from nothing, to something, to nothing – and now we’ve got something again: a new shot at success through H&R Block,” says Willard.

Not bad for a couple of kids who started out with nothing but a dream.

 

 

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Mary Ann Luther

Mary Ann Luther

Contributor

How taxes affect everyday life is one of Mary Ann Luther’s favorite subjects. But medicine, insurance, engineering and education are right up there. She’s covered them all as a writer and/or editor for The Daily Oklahoman, Oklahoma TODAY magazine, GEICO and The Catholic University of America, and as a freelancer for many more. Luther earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from University of Missouri-Columbia. Go, Tigers!

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