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This is how HP lost its way

September 16, 2015, 4:01 PM UTC
HP CEO Meg Whitman Visits China
Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard
Photograph by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Hewlett-Packard will lay off 28,000 to 33,000 workers as it prepares to split into two companies, it announced Tuesday. The move is the latest in a long time of turnaround efforts for the beleaguered HP.

When the company’s growth stalled in the late 1990’s, then-CEO Lew Platt also opted for a split, spinning off HP’s original medical products and test and measurement devices unit. The next decade would bring a string of mega-mergers under a long line of various CEOs, starting with now-Presidential-hopeful Carly Fiorina and her $19 billion Compaq acquisition in 2002, then the $13.9 billion purchase of IT services company Electronic Data Systems under Mark Hurd and finally the $11.1 billion acquisition of Autonomy under Leo Apotheker.

Then came the era of now-CEO Meg Whitman, who’s been at the helm since 2011. A look back at Fortune’s coverage of the state of HP shortly after Whitman took the reins reveals a company in crisis, emphasizing the task ahead for the new CEO:

Simply put, Hewlett-Packard has lost its way. The company is in the midst of an existential crisis. It remains a behemoth, No. 10 on the Fortune 500, with $127 billion in sales last year [2011] and $7 billion in earnings. But the trajectory is ominous. Those profits, for example, were 19% lower in 2011 than in the previous year. HP’s business is under siege on almost every front, losing market share and facing declining margins.

It was a combustible mixture: long-term threats to the business combined with an impaired board and an ill-chosen CEO in Léo Apotheker (LAY-o AH-po-teck-er). The three ignited disastrously during the 11 months that the 58-year-old European software executive ran HP. Indeed, there’s no better way to understand the company’s plight today than to examine his tumultuous tenure. A Fortune investigation reveals that the turmoil of Apotheker’s reign was even more intense (hard as that is to believe) than previously reported. From the slapdash hiring of a man with no experience in HP’s biggest lines of business, to the half-baked ways in which the company tackled major strategic decisions; from the never-before-reported internal challenges to Apotheker by top executives, to the fact that HP chairman Ray Lane was a major force in the company’s strategic decisions—which he has since blamed on Apotheker…

With Whitman, 55, now in place, the acrimony at HP seems to have eased. So far her strategy amounts to this: Let’s execute better while we figure out our long-term plan. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But the company will never come close to reclaiming its former glory unless she and the board can find a way to function together and, most important, until she can answer the real question: What is HP?

The profile also reflects on where HP would end up almost four years later:

The company HP dreamed of being, IBM, had soared by taking a different tack: It dumped its PC business and focused on high-margin software and services. That prompted what is probably an apocryphal, but telling, anecdote among enterprise techies: Two visiting consultants are waiting for the elevator at a big company’s headquarters. One is from HP, the other from IBM. The consultant from Big Blue pushes the up button to visit the CEO on the top floor. The HP man, by contrast, hits the down button to see the IT guy in the basement. The message was clear: IBM (IBM) was consorting with kings while HP was on hands and knees, fixing the plumbing. It wasn’t just a metaphor either: IBM’s pretax profit margins, just under 20%, were more than double the 8.7% HP achieved in Hurd’s last year.

That anecdote from nearly five years ago is telling, and may give further insight into where Whitman hopes to bring the company with her latest move–one that aims to make HP (HPQ) a leading player in cloud services. Still, that path is a challenging one: Rivals like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM are already dominating the cloud market, and it won’t be easy for HP to break through.

READ MORE: Why cloud remains a huge hurdle for already-challenged HP.