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SUCCESSION

No Succession Plan & an Uncertain Legacy

Life After the Inc. 500: An untimely death and no succession plan left Michelle Taylor at the helm of her mother's company, Betah Associates, with no oars.

Changes Michelle Taylor, pictured here with her mother, Wilhelmina Bell-Taylor, took over her mother's company.

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Prosperity and publicity followed Betah Associates's appearance on the Inc. 500. Soon afterward, the company, which provides communications services for government agencies, won a hefty contract from the Department of Health and Human Services. Wilhelmina Bell-Taylor, Betah's founder and CEO, was interviewed on CBS and profiled in Black Enterprise magazine. "It was really the pinnacle for us," recalls her daughter, Michelle Taylor.

Then, in 2004, Bell-Taylor was found to have lung cancer. She died in 2008. "In terms of a succession plan, there really wasn't one," says Taylor, who at the time was Betah's creative services director. Bell-Taylor had brought in a professional to run the company while she underwent treatment, "but it was not a good fit," says her daughter. An acquisition offer was on the table until Taylor took it off, determined to lead the company herself.

"My mom and I agreed that she was not going to groom me for this, that I had other plans," says Taylor. "She was very clear that Betah was not her legacy. I was her legacy, and she wanted me to do what I had a passion for. But grief is a tricky thing. I wanted to honor what she had accomplished. And I believed wholeheartedly in what we do here."

Bell-Taylor's friends and colleagues rallied round to form an advisory board for the fledgling leader, and the company's former COO returned as a consultant. Taylor made some changes—relocating to a less-expensive suburb and allowing employees to work from home. A former associate producer at National Geographic Television, she has emphasized creative services over the administrative and strategic-planning offerings that were her mother's strength. Still, with the economy battering government contracts, Betah's annual revenue has dropped below $5 million.

Taylor says she is prospecting at different agencies and cultivating video-production and digital-media capabilities. To run the business, she relies on a very personal operations manual. "Five days before my mother died, she gave me a journal that contained 10 years' worth of prayers and words of wisdom she had been writing down," says Taylor. "It helps me answer the question: What would Wilhelmina do?"

 

IMAGE: Courtesy Subject
Last updated: Aug 23, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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