Mark Hurd: In his element

February 20, 2008, 5:12 PM UTC

With only a wee bit of provocation, Mark Hurd raised an alarming prospect Tuesday afternoon: He won’t be the CEO of Hewlett-Packard forever. “It’s important to know when your work is done,” he told me during a 50-minute interview in the conference room across from his corner office at HP’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. “CEOs can stay too long.”

Let’s be clear: Hurd isn’t leaving. Not even close. In short, he doesn’t think his work his done. Unlike Meg Whitman, who famously predicted to Fortune that she’d leave eBay after 10 years — an accurate forecast, as it turned out — he isn’t even offering a guess as to the length of his tenure. Indeed, one of his favorite expressions, “We’ve got a lot of work to do here,” illustrates the point: So long as Hurd thinks there’s more to do he’ll be around.

It’s just that the CEO who may be the best big-company operator in the country is all about making uncomfortable observations that so far have ended up being the right call for his company: Market share isn’t the best goal to shoot for; even good businesses need to be examined carefully (especially their cost structures); and strategy and execution trump vision any day of the week.

Hurd has every right to be satisfied. Largely on the strength of its non-U.S. businesses, HP reported Tuesday that it grew revenue 13 percent in its first fiscal quarter, which ended in January. Earnings jumped 31 percent. Even more importantly, the company raised its guidance for the full year, which ends in October. The midpoint of that range, profits of $3.52 per share, or more than $9 billion, represents a 5 percent increase over what Wall Street had been forecasting. In a rare sign of the market perfectly assimilating new data, HP’s shares had jumped about 5 percent in after-hours trading by the time I sat down to talk with Hurd.

What you see after watching Hurd for a few years, as I have, is that part of his style simply isn’t to be satisfied. Despite nearly three years of focusing on improving the selling process at HP, Hurd says the company is still not good enough at sales. “It isn’t in our DNA,” he says, echoing past comments. He announced Tuesday the company had added 2,000 salespeople in the last year alone. HP’s computer business has improved dramatically, but its famous printer business needs to focus more on high-end systems and has done a poor job of forecasting the high-volume inkjet business. The size of its non-U.S. business currently is a source of great strength, but Hurd says HP needs to invest for more aggressively in selling in its home market. “You should think of HP as a company of transformation with a bunch of mini-transformations within that,” he says.

So the edgy dissatisfaction that has made Hurd such a success is still there. (He pointedly told analysts an hour earlier he was “not happy” by the inkjet performance.) At the same time, Hurd is in his element. HP’s stock price has roughly doubled since he took over in March, 2005. Yet at $46, it trades for only about 13 times forecasted 2008 earnings, the low end of HP’s historic range and a discount to the overall market. That’s both frustrating to Hurd and an opportunity. (He nods his head — and initially says nothing — as I make this observation.) “I try not to get into that dialogue,” he says. “Sectors get multiples, not just companies,” he adds, noting that the IT hardware sector currently is out of style.

Hurd loves to talk business, but there are a few topics he won’t touch. I ask, if Dell can get its act together will that will hurt HP? Hurd doesn’t talk about the competition. I’m curious to know his perspective on Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo . Both are partners, he notes, and leaves it at that. (On Feb. 13 News Corp. (NWS) announced that Hurd is joining its board, undoubtedly making him even more reticent on the subject than he already would have been.) He completely stays away from the subject of his predecessor, Carly Fiorina, even by implication. He boils down the CEO’s responsibilities to three tasks: setting strategy (not offering a vision); aligning operations and modeling ways to execute on the strategy; get the best team to help the CEO. “There are a thousand distractions that keep you from doing that,” he says. But that’s where the focus needs to be.

So far so good.