What HP turnaround signs would look like

August 29, 2012, 3:41 PM UTC

Looking at Hewlett-Packard’s balance sheet elicits a fair number of “uh oh’s.”

During its last-reported quarter, ended July 31, HP (HPQ) posted revenue of just under $30 billion, down over $1 billion compared to the same period last year. The company lost a whopping $8.9 billion during the period, reversing the $1.9 billion profit it generated in the same quarter in 2011. In a statement, HP CEO Meg Whitman tried to put a good face on the news, saying that her company is “still in the early stages of a multi-year turnaround,” adding that HP is “making decent progress despite the headwinds.”

And what headwinds they are. In the mobile space — an industry that will continue to generate tens of billions of dollars in the coming years and arguably become the most important segment of the technology market — Whitman was forced to pull HP out, saying that its effort there with WebOS was ill-fated from the beginning.

Meanwhile, HP’s vastly important PC operation has come under attack. During the second quarter, HP held the worldwide lead in PC shipments by a razor-thin margin. According to research firm IDC, HP shipped 13.4 million PCs during the second quarter, earning it 15.5% ownership of the market. That was down 12.3% compared to the 15.3 million PC shipments and 17.6% share it had during the same period last year. Lenovo, meanwhile, has watched its share soar from 10.3 million shipments to 12.9 million last quarter. It has 14.9% share, and according to many analysts, will eventually overtake HP.

MORE: How Hewlett-Packard lost its way

It’s hard to find any good news at HP. During the second quarter, only its tiny Software and Financial Services divisions generated more revenue this year than last. The company’s PC-focused Personal Systems Group, as well as its Services division, saw revenue slide considerably. That poor performance culminated in one, unfortunate result for HP: it’s not appealing to consumers. “As expected, HP’s segments with consumer exposure suffered a severe drop in revenue,” Morningstar (MORN) analyst Michael Holt wrote recently in a research note to investors. Sales in the personal systems group fell 10% year-over-year on weak demand for PCs, led by a 12% drop in consumer revenue. “This remains a troubling rate of decline and there is little evidence to suggest that HP is executing well enough to compete in this hyperaggressive pricing environment,” he continued.

But that doesn’t mean that Whitman is ready to wave the white flag. Back in May, the company announced a multi-year initiative designed to right itself. That restructuring plan includes 27,000 layoffs, dedicating more spending to its Personal Systems Group, and improving its standing in enterprise exploits, like servers, software, and services. “While some of these actions are difficult because they involve the loss of jobs, they are necessary to improve execution and to fund the long-term health of the company,” Whitman said in a statement at the time. “We are setting HP on a path to extend our global leadership and deliver the greatest value to customers and shareholders.”

Generating value to shareholders is something HP has suffered with lately. Since the start of the year, the company’s stock is down 33% to $17.21. In the last year, its shares have dropped 31%. That sell-off seems to indicate a growing concern with HP’s chances for success. As Credit Suisse analyst Kulbinder Garcha wrote in a research note last week, HP’s troubles in its Personal Systems Group — which has shown no signs of reemerging — are “a microcosm of the rest of the company.”

MORE: What HP’s Meg Whitman must do now

Still, HP has one thing now that it didn’t just a year ago: stability. The company’s CEO office had turned into a revolving door after Mark Hurd unceremoniously left and his predecessor, Leo Apotheker, was let go. Now, though, Whitman has been given the board’s full confidence. And it appears that the company is hers to either lead back to greatness or push to catastrophic failure. That fate might rely upon tablets. Recently, an internal memo was published by technology site The Verge, indicating that HP is building a new Mobility business unit focused on “consumer tablets.” But is that really the right move?

HP will likely double down on Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows 8 when that tablet-ready operating system launches in October. And HP seems to understand that notebooks and desktops are increasingly losing steam because of slates. But like so many moves HP has made recently, building a mobility division appears dicey. But green shoots in any future HP turnaround are likely to start in this very division.

In other words, it’s the wrong time and probably, a bad move. And therein lies the rub. HP and its executives know what needs to be done to be successful. The company has made major moves to reach those goals. But executing at the right time — and at the same level as the competition — has been elusive. Until (or perhaps if) that changes, there may not be much good news coming out of HP headquarters.