Editor’s note: Charles Davidson writes on the Atlanta tech scene each Monday.Richard Brock has made more comebacks than an aging heavyweight.

After founding what’s now Firstwave Technologies (Nasdaq: FSTW) in 1984, Brock is in his third stint as the company’s day-to-day leader. A hyper 54-year-old originally from Mobile, Ala., he’s backed away every few years only to jump back in after another CEO bolted. His last chief executive the respected Doug MacIntyre, left the company in March 1999 after three years.

The life of Firstwave, now a customer relationship management software company, has been similarly erratic. It’s even on its third name, after Brock Control Systems and Brock International.

When Brock started the company in 1984, it was among a small crop of startups that represented Atlanta’s first wave of software houses aiming to capitalize on the rapidly spreading personal computer.

The company prospered selling what was then called sales force automation software. It raised $24 million in an initial public offering in 1993. Like now, that meant something then. In 1993 and 1994, Brock Control Systems posted its best numbers.

But the company hasn’t turned in a profitable year since.

Right now, though, the firm and its founder are on a high, relatively speaking: Firstwave reported a first-quarter profit last week, and its stock price nearly doubled to over $8. Revenue for the first quarter, $4.1 million, was nearly triple the same quarter a year ago.

It’s way too early to celebrate.

Even after the stock price jumped, the company’s market capitalization is only $20 million. Firstwave narrowly escaped delisting from the Nasdaq stock market last fall. To do so, it swallowed bitter medicine including a one-for-three reverse stock split in September 2001.

Even in its latest annual report, filed March 29 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company’s auditors warn that recurring losses and negative operating cash flows “raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”

Ever an optimist, Brock sounds hopeful. Firstwave has no outstanding debt, and its cash is, for the first time in years, growing, albeit to only $2.3 million. And while he admits peddling software is tough as companies continue squeezing their tech budgets, he’s comfortable that Firstwave will keep up its good work for at least the next couple of quarters.

“We’ve identified an enormous backlog of opportunities, the best I’ve had in several years, and they’re well qualified opportunities,” Brock says. “And I have the best feet on the street I’ve had in several years.”

Those feet belong to Firstwave’s salespeople and systems integrator partners. During a conference call on April 22, Brock said the company had begun adding sales and marketing staff to exploit a possible revival of tech spending, and in turn CRM software demand, that he hopes will come soon.

The going concern warning notwithstanding, Brock figures his company’s longevity will serve it well in a CRM business that’s littered with casualties. Customers want to know you’ll be around for awhile. Brock counts that as a plus for Firstwave.

Indeed, as many venture capital-backed startups have expired, the competition has dwindled. “This tough climate has proven to be an advantage for companies like Firstwave that have prudently balanced expenses and revenues,” says Brock.

How long an 18-year history and improving results will sustain Firstwave is unclear. It hasn’t been a serious factor in the stock markets for some time, as its current market value is about what Coca-Cola pays its CEO every year. And pushing its market cap substantially higher, or attracting a decent price from an acquirer, would probably take many more solid quarters and bigger numbers.

Others also weather the storm

But simply hanging on is possible. In fact, Firstwave is one of a handful of Atlanta tech companies that has done little of real note lately but has weathered the tech storms independently. A pair of others is American Software, founded in 1970, and Intelligent Systems, around since 1973.

Intelligent Systems, based in Norcross, has had many lives. Through the 1980s, it was known for making computer peripherals, and eventually evolved into a sort of incubator and investment firm. It made a $9 million profit last year, but its market value is only $14 million.

American Software trudged through the ’90s, having never really recovered from its failure to smoothly adapt from the mainframe to the client-server world in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The company reported net income of $3.4 million on revenue of $61 million for the nine months through Jan. 31. Its market value: $75 million, about triple where it was a year ago.

American Software, most observers agree, probably would have been sold some time ago if its founders, James Edenfield and Thomas Newberry, didn’t control a majority of the company’s voting stock. That has allowed American to operate as a quasi-private company. If Edenfield and Newberry don’t want something big to happen, it won’t happen.

Like American and Intelligent Systems, Brock and Firstwave want to keep fighting.