Greg Block, 54, an entrepreneur who gave back, dies

Greg Block, founder of First Step Staffing

Credit: Family

Credit: Family

Monica Block remembers Oct. 3, 2013, with painful clarity.

She and her husband Greg were home in Atlanta. He began his day handling business calls but started feeling strange and thinking he might be suffering a heart attack.

“He got off the phone and tried to walk downstairs and started to become paralyzed on one side of his body,” she recalled. “I ran inside to drive him to the hospital. But once we hit the sidewalk he had a seizure so we called 911 instead.”

Greg Block, third from left, celebrates the expansion of the nonprofit he founded, First Step Staffing, which put homeless people and others with challenges into jobs. (Left to right) Paul Schroeder, guest speaker, Brian Goebel, board member of First Step, Greg Block,, Dave Shaffer, CEO of First Step, Monica Block, wife of Greg Block, and Jean Shaffer, wife of Dave Shaffer. Contributed/Ian Palmer

An examination at Piedmont Hospital revealed a sobering diagnosis: stage 4 cancer in his lungs that had spread to his brain.

“He was woken up early the next morning and told he had six months to live,” she said. It seemed surreal, especially because he had finished an 18-mile training run for an upcoming triathlon just days before.

Released from the hospital that afternoon, Block’s first stop was an athletic field to coach his son Jackson’s youth-league football game.

Family, friends and colleagues say that was typical. Nothing, but nothing was going to stand in the way of Block’s commitments or slow him down.

He beat his original diagnosis of six months to live by more than six years.

An entrepreneur who sold a successful home textile company in his early 40s to focus on a way to give back to the community — a desire instilled by his mother, who was a community volunteer and started a nonprofit to end corporal punishment for children — Block was also a community activist, dedicated athlete and a musician.

He held a series of conversations with colleagues and civic leaders about what he should do next, and what emerged was the creation in 2007 of First Step Staffing. It is an Atlanta-based non-profit that places the homeless, those with criminal records, struggling veterans and others with employment barriers in jobs.

“He told me, ‘Am I supposed to drive by these people every day and know that they have lives and stories and not give them a chance to lift themselves up? ’ " said Joe Guerra, a former Atlanta businessman and friend.

Block’s admirers said that once settled on a course of action, his passion and entrepreneurial skill came to the fore.

“He was a cannonball,” said Guerra. “He was all muscle. When he crashed through something, he left a great gaping hole, but it was always to take things to the next level.”

Another friend and colleague, A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, described him as a warrior.

“He was incredibly courageous and determined and impatient,” he recalled.” He had a vision and said, we’re going to get there.”

One example: Block’s years-long campaign to get Robinson to join the agency’s board of directors.

Robinson declined, pleading other involvements but said after ten years “I got tired of making excuses. He wasn’t going to give up until I said yes. That’s how he approached every hurdle in life.”

Block, 54, died Aug. 14. He’s survived by wife Monica, children Will, Carole Anne and Jack, his mother, Nadine Block, and two brothers.

Friends and family said with his cancer diagnosis and the clock ticking, Block redoubled his efforts to grow First Step, whose footprint hadn’t increased since its inception.

He settled on an unusual strategy — putting together deals to buy for-profit staffing agencies in Atlanta and elsewhere, turn them into non-profits and meld them into the mothership operation.

Amelia Nickerson, who took the CEO job earlier this year, said that had never before been done in the staffing industry.

“He told me it was like crawling over broken glass to get people to listen to him initially,” she said. Eventually, Block put together a financing package of money from community development financial institutions and social impact lenders to buy a larger staffing firm in Atlanta.

Using the same model, operations eventually expanded across six states. First Step grew from $2 million in payroll in 2013 to $40 million in 2019, and the number of clients served swelled from 100 a week to some 1,500.

Block pushed his vision through rounds of exhausting radiation, chemo, medication and clinical trials. Friends and family said he hit the pause button when needed but mostly kept silent about his battle.

“It was a week or so before he died and he wasn’t feeling well, just no energy,” recalled Monica Block. She talked to friends that day and expressed her worries.

“I came back into the room and found him on a conference call because he was working on another non-profit project. He spent an hour and 45 minutes on the phone.”

Block said that a private family memorial was being planned, with a more public celebration of his life coming next year.

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