Platt in Pumps

I would just love to have been in the room when Carly Fiorina got the word that she was getting the boot. I have a hunch the discussion with Hewlett-Packard's board went something like this:

Board Member 1: "Good morning, Carly. You're probably wondering why we called you here this morning. ... Pat, do you want to take it from here?"

Board Member 2: "Um ... sure. You see, Carly, the thing is, as you know, things haven't been going all that well for us lately, and ... well ... um ... Dick, you expressed it well during the dry run ..."

Board Member 3: "Right. Carly, you know we love you, but these gosh-darn shareholders keep asking why in the heck we can't seem to get our act together and start making them the money we promised we would when we went after Compaq. I mean, you can't blame them ... you know ... Lucy, why don't you jump in here?"

Board Member 4: "Thanks, Dick ... Carly, maybe it will help if I tell you a story about when I was a little girl ..."

And so on. You just know it had to be mighty tough to drop that particular bomb. Fiorina is tough as nails, and I can't imagine anyone wanting to be on her bad side.

But toughness is a two-edged sword. It was Fiorina's icy fortitude that beat Walter Hewlett in the proxy fight that cleared the way for HP to acquire Compaq in 2002. On the other hand, the financial results that toughness yielded have been nothing if not disappointing, to the point where Fiorina fired three top executives last summer when HP's server and storage business tanked. The fact that Fiorina opted to brandish her toughness sword rather than fall on it herself apparently made it clear to an increasingly antsy board that she wasn't going to go without a push.

Now that the push has been made, Fiorina isn't asking herself where she went wrong, because she's convinced everything she did was right. But make no mistake: She screwed up.

What Fiorina needed to do when she made her high-profile ascension to HP's throne in 1999 was to remake HP in IBM's image. She understood that, but she didn't understand how to do it. That first became apparent when she passed up the golden opportunity to acquire the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2000, only to see IBM snatch it up in 2002. Instead of making a key acquisition as part of a strategic plan to transform HP into a more competitive global services provider, Fiorina opted to acquire Compaq to dramatically boost the scale of HP's hardware business. So much for following the IBM model.

So this is what HP needs to do to recast itself in that IBM mold once and for all:

  • Spin off its lucrative imaging/printer business. IBM spun off its printer business in 1991 to form Lexmark, which reported record revenue and profits for 2004.
  • Find a Chinese computer company to unload its languishing PC business on. That worked for IBM, too.
  • Go on the prowl for a consulting firm (other than EDS -- let's not go into this blindly) to give Ann Livermore, executive vice president of HP's technology solutions group, something she can really work with.

In fact, I'd go all the way and give Livermore the CEO nod. She's about as different from Lew Platt, Fiorina's predecessor, as you can get. Fiorina, with her box-pushing focus, was Platt in pumps. And that, more than anything, is why she and Platt now have even more in common.

Don Tennant

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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