Whitman takes over, but can she fix HP?
The former eBay CEO was named chief of Hewlett-Packard Thursday afternoon. While she grew the auction site dramatically, cutting the fat at bloated HP will be a different challenge. Can she pull it off?
Can former eBay CEO Meg Whitman fix Hewlett-Packard?
HP's board named Whitman their new chief this afternoon, after two days of reports the move was imminent.
Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) shares soared as much as 10% Wednesday on rumors that the tech giant's board could be kicking chief executive Leo Apotheker to the curb, with Whitman waiting in the wings. Shares fell almost 5% on Thursday, a little worse than the market overall.
But don't be fooled -- this is just the latest dumb move at Hewlett-Packard, a company plagued not just by a revolving door in the corner office but by a glue-and-sticky-tape approach to its current ugly state of affairs.
I won't bore you with a laundry list of HP missteps during the past few years. They are many and well-known. (I previously wrote a column about how Hewlett-Packard embodies everything that's wrong with corporate America, for anyone who wants an in-depth look at this dumpster fire of a company.)
That's all in the past. What's most troubling is that, after almost $30 billion in buyouts since 2008 -- $10 billion for Autonomy + $1.2 billion for Palm + $2.7 billion for 3Par + $2.35 for 3Com + $13.6 billion for Electronic data systems -- there are much more corporate shenanigans going on than there is growth to manage.
- Another view: Whitman could be great for H-P
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Meaning that even if you want to give Whitman the benefit of the doubt and grant her 100% credit for the success of eBay, the Hewlett-Packard mess is just too different a situation for her to be a good fit.
Here are five reasons Whitman won't be able to fix Hewlett-Packard:
No corporate IT experience. Whitman's tenure at eBay was fundamentally defined by a connection with consumers. Even the "sellers" on the auction site are largely average Joes and tiny out-of-the-garage businesses. Before that, she worked at Hasbro (HAS) to market Playskool and Mr. Potato Head. That's a far cry from cloud computing, tech support, networking hardware and bulk computer sales to Fortune 500 companies. On the plus side, her consumer focus might be able to help prop up HP printer and laptop sales, with Hewlett-Packard killing its TouchPad tablet amid the Apple (AAPL) iPad craze and planning to spin off its PC business. It might make sense to appoint Meg Whitman the CEO of this smaller consumer-focused division, but it makes no sense to appoint her now. She is ill suited for the very big-business nature of corporate IT sales, which is HP's core business.
Her heart might not be in it. Let's be honest: Whitman is 55 years old with a net worth of over $1 billion and the bragging rights of building one of the most iconic names in the tech sector. What does she have left to prove? And what incentive does she have for the 60-hour workweeks that will be required to quickly fix the mess at HP? It takes guts and determination to race into a burning building like this, and perhaps Meg Whitman has it. But investors should have serious doubts. She ran for governor in 2009, for Pete's sake. If aspiring to become a politician isn't waiving the white flag on a serious business career, I don't know what its.
It's not growth HP needs but strategy. Whitman joined eBay on March 1998, when it had 30 employees and the site was a simple, ugly web page. Juxtapose that with Hewlett-Packard, which got its humble beginnings in 1935 and had one of its namesake founders on the board until 1993. Thanks to decades of growth and expansion, the behemoth now boasts a list of products, divisions and services that boggles the mind. In short, it’s not growth HP needs, but streamlining and strategy. Leading a fast-growth business like eBay and taking it public is no small task, and kudos to Whitman for her success on that front. But frankly, those experiences don’t compare at all to the task of hacking through the weeds at HP. There’s a reason why many of the best entrepreneurs often sell out of a company once it gets big-time and then start fresh on another start-up — because they understand the very different leadership roles in small and big businesses. This is not to say that Whitman is incapable of the task, just that all of her previous experiences mean very little — and she would have to have the self-awareness of this going in.
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Buyouts are the bane of HP's existence. Along the same lines of growth vs. strategy, at eBay, Whitman’s biggest feather in her cap was the 2002 PayPal acquisition for $1.5 billion. Recent earnings reports prove the continued contribution to eBay’s bottom line from this great addition, and future potential of PayPal in the mobile device space cannot be understated. However, HPQ already has made a mess of things trying a “growth by buyout” philosophy. If Whitman is looking to leave her fingerprints on HP, she had better look for a different approach then buyouts. Shareholders better hope she takes to heart the cautionary tale of her $3.1 billion boondoggle on Skype rather than try and recreate the PayPal deal.
HP shareholders have little patience. Perhaps the biggest problem is that even if Whitman can manage to overcome all of these hurdles, the bottom line is that shareholders are furious and want to see results. The stock is off 40% in 2011 and is trading at 2005 valuations. HP stock pays a dividend of less than 2% despite spending tens of billions on doomed buyouts. Earnings and revenue will be up slightly this year, but there is a general consensus that the world is passing Hewlett-Packard by. Whitman will have a very short period of time to prove herself — witness the brief tenure of saintly Carol Bartz at Yahoo (YHOO) as one so-called CEO upgrade that didn’t work or didn’t work fast enough. And if Whitman doesn’t show her stuff within a year or two, the sad reality is that the musical chairs will continue at HP as the leadership vacuum continues.
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here. Write him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook.
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