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?"
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