By Adam Lashinsky
August 10, 2010

Mark Hurd’s departure is mired in muck, but C-suite headhunters are sure to focus less on the rumors than on the possibilities.

Yes, I know. The focus is supposed to be on who will be the next CEO of Hewlett-Packard (hpq). Quite right. The company is nuts to suggest it won’t skip a beat with Mark Hurd’s resignation last week. A new CEO will shake up the senior-management ranks, and the reverberations will be felt well down the line.

And yet, it’s equally tantalizing to speculate where Hurd will end up. Apparently, he can.

Toni Sacconaghi, the respected Bernstein Research analyst who has analyzed HP’s stock about as long as I’ve been interviewing its CEOs, devoted a section of a report this morning to the subject. The emphasis is mine:

We suspect that HP’s competitors will look to take advantage of the leadership void at HP, particularly in large enterprise deals, which could have a modest impact on financials until a new CEO is named. Moreover, we note that Mark Hurd has no employment restrictions, which raises the question of whether he could serve in some capacity (Board member, Executive, consultant) at an HP competitor.

No employment restrictions? Wow. (Sacconaghi says HP told him this directly. HP says: “Mark Hurd is subject to a two-year Agreement Regarding Confidential Information and Proprietary Developments, which is intended to prevent Mark from engaging in conflicting business activities or soliciting customers, employees or suppliers.”)¬† In other words, there’d be a tussle if the competition with HP were too direct.

First, let’s first explore if he’s employable.

In a word, yes. He has settled whatever dispute he had with Jodie Fisher, the actress his office employed as a greeter at corporate events. He also reached a severance agreement with HP, meaning there isn’t any outstanding litigation between him and the company. He tore it up as CEO for five years. Would another company want him? Of course, but who?

Some chin stroking is in order:

Dell (dell). This is so obvious even a journalist could figure it out. Dell has become HP’s punching bag, so much so that HP doesn’t really mention Dell much when it discusses competitors. Dell has been run by a consultant (Kevin Rollins, who once told me that Apple’s plan to sell songs for $1 was a dumb idea) and its founder. The latter, Michael Dell, hasn’t been able to recreate the magic he had while building the company. This is a company that needs operational excellence, not vision, right now. Dell should fire himself as CEO, hire Hurd and remain as chairman. Hurd went to college in Texas and worked there at the beginning of his career. He’d likely enjoy bolting the Silicon Valley snakepit.

General Motors. Obvious Ed Whitacre, a non-car guy, won’t stick around forever. When Hurd joined HP from NCR the knock on him was that he hadn’t run anything HP’s size. Well, now he’s run something GM’s size, and Whitacre already has plowed the ground to suggest that one needed be a car buff to run a complex, global, financially sophisticated company.

Oracle (orcl). Larry Ellison is so fond of his competitor that he gave an admiring quote about Hurd to The New York Times over the weekend. Ellison already has perfected the art of running a company with a loose hand, paying attention to the strategic and technological details that most interest him and leaving the operational nuts and bolts to others. Replacing himself with Hurd as CEO while taking the chairmanship would be an interesting scenario for Ellison. It undoubtedly wouldn’t sit well with Safra Catz [See “The Enforcer: Who is Oracle’s Safra¬†Catz?”], who handles many of the functions at Oracle that Hurd did at HP. A Hurd appointment would delight Oracle’s shareholders though.

Any number of private-equity-funded ventures. Investors appreciate Hurd, and the types who’d really appreciate him are those who own big companies that need to be salvaged. The model here is what David Calhoun has done with Nielsen, whose private-equity owners recruited him from GE, gave him a giant slug of equity and turned him loose on the company in the relative obscurity of private ownership. [See “Nielsen’s $78 million CEO.“]

At 53, Hurd will work again. The questions are: Which company will move aggressively or quickly enough to snag him, and how hobbling will a “confidential information and proprietary developments” clause in his separation agreement be?

An earlier version of this post suggested Larry Ellison already is chairman of Oracle. He is not. Jeffrey Henley, the company’s former chief financial officer, has been chairman since 2004.

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