For Hewlett-Packard, some hopeful thoughts

October 13, 2014, 4:18 PM UTC
Hewlett-Packard To Cut 9,000 Positions
SAN FRANCISCO - JUNE 01: Packages of HP ink cartridges ares displayed at a Best Buy store June 1, 2010 in San Francisco, California. Hewlett-Packard Co. announced today that they plan to cut 9,000 jobs over several years as they invest $1 billion to automate data centers and make operational changes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photograph by Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

In 2005, when Carol Loomis wrote one of her signature, exhaustive articles for Fortune, this one about Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s troubled acquisition of Compaq, she quoted a Wall Street analyst who predicted that HP (HP) would one day be split up.

That analyst, Steven Milunovich, left the research business for a time. But he’s back at it again, now working at UBS, where he covers enterprise technology companies—that is, companies that sell technology to other companies as opposed to consumers. Milunovich is still paying careful attention to HP, which announced last week that it is splitting its consumer PC and printer businesses (to be called HP Inc) from its enterprise hardware and software lines (to be known as Hewlett-Packard Enterprise).

Reaction to the spin-off, beyond general praise for spin-offs, has been tepid. Writing in The New York Times over the weekend, James Stewart walks through HP’s generally weak prospects on both sides of its house. In his weekly “Monday Note,” Jean-Louis Gassée provides outstanding historical commentary on HP’s culture, calling the company today a “tired conglomeration.”

As for Milunovich, he finds some reasons for guarded optimism about HP. I reached him at his desk in New York last week. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

I wrote in an essay on the day the split was announced that HP didn’t much matter anymore, at least not the way it used to. Do you agree?

HP’s obviously lost a lot of luster. It’s not the company it once was. But it is one of the largest consumer computing companies. Clearly Apple (AAPL) has surpassed it. But HP is very close to being the number-one PC company globally. They are the premier printing company. Where they have faded is on the enterprise side, and the innovation halo they once had is long gone. But I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Talk about your 2005 prediction.

I apparently predicted that printers would be peeled off from PCs. I’ve always been a big believer in focus. It’s the most powerful factor in business. In the case of HP we always felt it was difficult being the premier consumer and enterprise company. Microsoft (MSFT) clearly has had similar issues. In HP’s case there’s no silver bullet. No one unit is being held back. But it doesn’t encourage focus. I would argue that they should have done this years ago.

As you note, HP isn’t separating printers and PCs, meaning the Compaq acquisition is remaining somewhat intact.

I’d argue that the Compaq acquisition wasn’t so bad. If you were going to try to be a major computer company, the Compaq deal made some sense. It’s not unlike the rumored EMC (EMC) and HP combination currently [rumored], which could make some sense. Back then HP was weak in x86 systems [a type of computing based on Intel processors] and storage. Compaq gave them both. Clearly they would not be in the market position they are in today if they hadn’t done that acquisition.

What is your assessment of HP’s management?

They’ve lost so much talent over the years. I don’t think it can ever be what it once was. But I do believe CEO Meg Whitman has made improvements. We did a conference call recently with Mohamad Ali, HP’s chief strategist. Meg has brought to HP this “Playing to Win” approach, which Procter & Gamble (PG) uses. She learned it there because [P&G CEO] A.G. Lafley used it in the 2000s. They have this strategic framework. I had never heard boo about this. It’s nine to 12 months old. I heard she had an offsite with the top 100 or so managers at HP. And she said, “I want you all to read this book. I’m going to test you on it.” The flight attendants noticed. They wanted to know why everybody on this flight to Las Vegas was reading the same book. It gives you a sense of the discipline there.

HP has been talking a lot about the cloud lately, but I don’t have a sense of how its cloud computing strategy is different from the competition, several of whom have been at it longer than HP.

In general, observers are unclear. We talked recently to Bill Veghte [the head of HP’s enterprise group and a longtime Microsoft executive]. They’ve had three different management teams running their cloud strategy. The IT has been rebranded as Helion. It has several features, many of which aren’t available yet. So, for HP, that is a work in progress.

Toward the end of her article almost a decade ago, Carol Loomis asked Carly Fiorina who the leading technology company of the day was. Fiorina responded that there was no one company, but in retrospect Apple exerted far more than its fair share of leadership. What would your answer be today?

Apple today is clearly the world’s leading consumer tech company. And IBM is the leading enterprise company. But Microsoft, Oracle, and HP aren’t far behind. The HP Inc company is probably pretty close to half consumer and half enterprise. There’s still the question of how HP fits in. I think the split is to better position the enterprise side. They are vulnerable there. Their cloud strategy is unclear to people.

Last question: How about you? What’s different today from your previous stint as an analyst?

It’s very similar to the early ’90s. We’re going through one of those disruptive periods when everything is changing. The lesson for investors is this: Get out of the incumbents and focus on the pure-plays. Going out to Silicon Valley is even more depressing than it was in the 1990s, with new players saying they are going to destroy the incumbents. It’s depressing because my clients own the companies that are under attack. But EMC and IBM—and even HP—are not going away quickly.