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An accidental CEO comes out on top

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It’s a challenge for any company when its chief executive suffers a major health issue. But Columbia’s Software Consortium managed to survive — and thrive — despite the extended hospitalizations of two of its CEOs.

The more recent event was in 2005, when current chief executive Janet Amirault had a stroke that reduced her vocabulary to 100 words and left her unable to read, write or drive.

Amirault made a full recovery, and last month she was named Maryland’s Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Candidates were judged on the basis of their revenue and employment growth, uniqueness of services, overcoming adversity, training investments and other factors.

“We underwent unique health incidents and emerged strong,” she said. “I’m a small business person who’s very focused on making sure that we have good growth and provide good opportunities for our employees.”

Amirault began her career with companies such as Citicorp and Blue Cross Blue Shield working in R&D, training and program management. But by the early 1990s, she had grown disillusioned with the quarterly-earnings driven big-business world, and when she met an entrepreneur named Jim Beauchamp, she came on as director of consulting with his software development start-up, Software Consortium.

She became chief operating officer in 18 months. When Beauchamp suffered a heart attack in 1996 and was hospitalized repeatedly, she soon took over as CEO.

“I had no aspirations to be a business owner,” she said. “It was one of those leadership moments you never think you’re going to face.”

During her first rocky year as head of the company, she gradually learned to sell, and the company turned a profit for the first time. She and her team consistently grew revenues annually thereafter.

Seeking to create strong teams within the company, she hired leadership coaches to train employees in emotional intelligence, dropped some problem customers and hired employees as full-timers, rather than the contractors the company had relied on under Beauchamp.

“It was important to have a base of people who are all passionate about the same thing,” she said. “In our case, that’s consulting, producing end solutions and teamwork.”

The company weathered both the tech recession of the early 2000s and the more recent recession with no layoffs and continued revenue growth. Though in the early ’90s it had only a tiny office in Baltimore, the company now has three locations and 88 employees.

Then, in 2005, Amirault suffered stroke caused by a blood clot. With the help of physical and speech therapists, she gradually re-taught herself how to talk, walk and read. In doing so, she was a bit of an outlier: About 10 percent of stroke victims recover almost completely.

Meanwhile, her company continued to largely run itself.

“I had created these self-managed teams, and the branches were largely operating without me,” she said.

She was back to work in two months, but it was six months before her communication skills were restored to the point that she could again meet with customers and potential clients.

Since then, Amirault and her team have grown the company’s net income by 190 percent year over year since 2008.

Along the way, the company also took on a number of high-profile projects, including developing the first content management system for the U.S. Department of Energy and creating the first mobile application for Amtrak.

Meanwhile, her health scare prompted Amirault to add yet another title to her name: a walking medical library.

“I had genetic testing, heart testing, an MRI, a bone scan, and I met with a nutritionist, an exercise physiologist, and I work with a trainer several times a week,” she said. “Health for me is number one.”

khazano@washpost.com

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