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H&R Block Finds Little Room to Grow

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( -- H&R Block (HRB - Get Report) is by far the largest provider of tax preparation and other financial and business services in the United States.

The company's biggest and oldest business is Tax Services, which generates 77% of its revenues and over 90% of its operating profits. Block has 12,000 offices across the country, one third of of which about are run by franchisees. These offices processed over 23 million tax returns in 2010, or 15.5% of all returns filed. To put Block's dominance in perspective, second place Jackson-Hewitt (JTX) processed about 2.5 million -- about one-tenth of HRB's filings.

Although Block's bread-and-butter is office prepared returns, the company has aggressively moved into the "do-it-yourself" (DIY) software-based return preparation market in the past year. While H&R produces its own software product, it made a big move last October with its purchase of TaxACT, which doubled DIY sales. This now puts Block solidly at No. 2 in tax software, but still only at about half the market share of Intuit's (INTU - Get Report) TurboTax products.

In addition to tax services, the company has a Business Services unit known as RSM McGladrey that provides accounting and tax consulting services to medium-sized businesses and accounts for about 22% of revenue and 10% of operating profits.

Finally, H&R Block Bank is a small banking operation primarily structured to provide advances to tax customers. The company got itself into hot water originating subprime mortgages in the middle of last decade and was shuttered in 2008. There are almost $600 million in mortgage loans on the balance sheet, held for investment but serviced by other firms.

There are clearly some attractive points about HRB. Tax preparation has historically been a good business. It has recurring revenues, is largely recession-proof, and requires little in the way of capital investment. These factors lead to high operating margins (Block's historical average is in the 15% to 20%) and voluminous free cash flows. In this particular case, H&R Block possesses easily the best known and trusted brand in the business that helps foster customer loyalty and allows the company to maintain higher rates than competitors. Block has been able to increase its rates 4% to 5% annually since 2002 (although this is a waning phenomenon).
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