Athenahealth CEO Bush departs, company to explore sale

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Athenahealth Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Bush is stepping down after a series of allegations about past misconduct raised questions about his ability to manage the information technology company he co-founded as it attempts to stave off a takeover.

The company said in a statement Wednesday that it now plans to explore a sale or merger, and will start a search for a new CEO. Bush’s departure is effective immediately.

The news follows the series of revelations about Bush’s past behavior, as well as the buyout proposal from activist investor Elliott Management Corp. The New York hedge fund has said the Watertown, Mass.-based company is poorly managed. It proposed buying it for $160 a share, valuing Athenahealth at $6.46 billion, and taking it private.

A representative for Elliott wasn’t immediately available for comment. The change in leadership opens the door for the hedge fund to proceed with its proposal. Other large investors have supported the company exploring a sale.

The departure marks an ignominious end at Athenahealth for Bush, 49, who helped create a software platform that serves more than 100,000 medical providers. A nephew of former President George H.W. Bush, he was one of the healthcare technology industry’s most colorful characters, drawing both praise and criticism for his management style.

In the statement, Bush said it’s “easy for me to see that the very things that made me useful to the company and cause in these past 21 years are now exactly the things that are in the way.”

Athenahealth declined to make Bush available for an interview. In the statement, the company also said it could opt to remain independent.

A number of revelations about Bush’s past behavior involving women have emerged in the past few weeks. A 2017 video clip seen by Bloomberg News of Bush at a healthcare industry event showed the CEO dressed up as a race car driver, at times reading from a cue card, pretending to be the title character from the 2006 comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Midway through the skit, he made what appeared to be an inappropriate comment directed at a female employee. The exact context of the remarks wasn’t clear.

Bush has also faced at least two gender discrimination complaints filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, a state agency.

Last week, Bush also apologized for punching his former wife in the sternum and giving her a black eye more than a decade ago. The incident, which was first reported by the U.K.’s Daily Mail, was detailed in 2006 court documents from a custody battle.

Athenahealth went public in September 2007, with shares surging 97 percent on their first day of trading. Investors saw promise in the company’s potential to bring useful software to over-burdened doctor’s offices. Bush went on to write “Where Does It Hurt?: An Entrepreneurs Guide to Fixing Health Care,” in 2014.

In interviews, multiple current and former employees at Athenahealth, all on the condition of anonymity, had varying opinions of Bush, with some calling him fun to be around, while others saying his actions weren’t always appropriate.

Jeffrey Immelt, who serves as chairman of the company’s board of directors and was previously CEO and chairman of General Electric, thanked Bush for guiding the company and “driving disruptive, positive change across the healthcare industry” in the statement. Immelt will assume the position of executive chairman. Marc Levine, chief financial officer at Athenahealth, will take on more day-to-day operational responsibilities and oversight, while Amy Abernethy, a board member and chief medical officer at Flatiron Health, will advise “the executive leadership team on data strategy within her role as a director.”

Bloomberg News