HP's Meg Whitman: New CEO, same old strategy

Léo Apotheker is gone, but his strategy will live on. The new leadership at HP may not have learned its lesson

Hewlett-Packard needs massive changes, and it needs them fast. But judging by her debut today as CEO, it doesn't look like Meg Whitman will deliver them. On a conference call with analysts and the media this afternoon, the former eBay CEO and failed gubernatorial candidate said she supports HP's August initiatives, including the death of the TouchPad and other WebOS hardware and a possible spin-off of the PC business.

Whitman said that a decision on the future of the company's Personal Systems Group "isn't like fine wine. It won't get better with age," and she promised to make up her mind by the end of the year, "if not sooner." But she gave no hint of what that decision will be.

[ InfoWorld's Ted Samson lists four reasons why hiring Whitman as HP's CEO was a mistake. | InfoWorld's Galen Gruman reviews the other scary CEO choices HP's hapless board could have picked. | Get the latest news and insight on the tech industry from the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

The clear message delivered by Whitman and Ray Lane, who is now executive chairman of the board of directors, was that the short reign of Léo Apotheker failed because he couldn't execute, communicate, or build a working management team. But there was no hint from either of the two top executives that Apotheker's strategy was flawed. I didn't count, but the word "communicate," as in "failed to communicate," was used over and over again, leading one to think that the problem wasn't the decisions made by Apotheker, but how he explained them -- or failed to.

HP's board chairman: We're not to blame
Lane tried hard to shift the blame for the company's problems away from HP's much-criticized board of directors, noting that eight new members, including Whitman, have joined since the beginning of the year. "This is not the board that was involved with pretexting [to spy on reporters] or the board that fired Mark Hurd," he said, later adding that the majority of the current board was not in place when Apotheker was hired.

Whitman and Lane repeatedly spoke about restoring shareholder value -- hardly surprising since the company's stock has lost about half its worth since March. But how they plan to do that is unclear. I heard nothing on the call about a strategic review. I'm far from convinced that HP's current strategy is a winner, if only someone would carry it out correctly -- as Lane and Whitman seem to believe.

Of course the only ones to suffer from Apotheker's lack of competence are the shareholders whose investments plummeted and the employees who lost their jobs as the company had to cut back. Apotheker himself will walk away with millions of dollars in parachute money. Failed CEOs always do.

HP is not eBay
I'm even more pessimistic because Whitman, who certainly did a good job making eBay a powerhouse, has little -- if any -- background in enterprise technology. Indeed, when Lane introduced her, he made a point of touting her experience as a "buyer" of technology. That's nice. I've been buying autos for decades. Maybe I should be running Toyota.

HP is at its core an enterprise business. Apotheker, at least, had experience running a firm whose key customers were enterprise IT. No doubt Whitman will be better at working the consumer business than Apotheker or Hurd, but that's a relatively small part of her challenge.

I also wonder if Whitman and Lane have a clue about how damaging HP's acquisition strategy has been. She made one great acquisition while she was at eBay: PayPal, of course. But she also lost $1 billion or so buying, then selling Skype to Microsoft. HP has spent many, many billions of dollars on acquisitions, most recently the wildly overpriced Autonomy buy, and you have to wonder if Whitman will be cautious or follow her predecessors in making expensive acquisitions that never produce.

There is one thing Whitman and Lane said that I agree with: Hewlett-Packard is a great company, and its health is vital to Silicon Valley and the rest of the tech industry. I wish them well and hope that their shaky start is just that -- a start -- and that we'll see better things in the future.

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This article, "HP's Meg Whitman: New CEO, same old strategy," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.


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