HP's Whitman works to assure customers as company cuts staff

CEO emphasizes a customer-focused direction at HP Discover

LAS VEGAS - As Meg Whitman, the CEO of HP, took the stage here today, the thousands sitting in this cavernous hall applauded politely and then stilled.

This was Whitman's first appearance at HP Discover, and she faced an audience of people who run systems that help ensure that airplanes fly on time and banking systems never fail.

But Whitman was also standing before an audience of people with concerns. They want to know what changes are in store as HP plans to cut 27,000 people, or about 8% of the company, over the next two years.

As in years past, attendees are at this large user conference to get the latest product information, meet directly with HP engineers and see how their peers are handling the same problems they deal with. But the layoffs and questions about Itanium, the subject of a court fight this week, made the answers they typically seek more pressing.

One IT manager, who didn't want his name used, said HP has about 45 people assigned to his company who provide sales and technical support. Part of his mission at this conference was to find out about the "continuity of the technical support" post-layoff. In the last week, he has learned that as many as 25% of the HP staff assigned to his firm may "turn over," or be affected by the layoff in some way.

That change is unsettling, he said. Aside from the technical support issues, there would be the loss of personal relationships. "Unfortunately, those type of changes continue to happen through our industry and the world," said this manager.

Whitman, who took the CEO job last September after her predecessor Leo Apotheker was shown the exit, used the continuing CEO upheavals to make a point about HP. "The kind of turmoil that HP has had at the top of the company can take a toll on companies, employees, shareholders," said Whitman. "But I've been surprised at the resilience of HP people -- HP is a remarkably resilient company."

HP employees "will do anything to help you in any circumstance," said Whitman.

She picked up that theme again near the end of her talk, using allegory and symbolism to explain how HP is a "truly differentiated" company in a variety of areas, but "most of all we're differentiated by our people who will do anything to deliver for you."

As the wall-to-wall screens displayed a large flock of birds literally darkening the sky, Whitman said "HP will darken the skies with the magnitude of our response."

The company's hardware roadmap issues were also addressed indirectly.

Among the attendees on hand today was Leon Arens, who runs NonStop at a financial service firm. These are fault-tolerant systems designed to never fail. They have their own operating system, the NonStop OS, and run on the embattled Itanium, the subject of the court fight this week with Oracle.

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