Meg Whitman and HP Five Years Later: Mission Accomplished?

September 27, 2016, 12:00 PM UTC

Meg Whitman must love a good challenge.

When the former eBay chief executive was named CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) on Sept 22, 2011, it’s safe to say that she, along with everyone else on the planet, knew it would be no walk in the park.

And it hasn’t been. She took charge of a 72-year-old company famous for making oscillators and other test equipment, printers, PCs, and computer servers—depending on the era. But it was also a business that over the last decade had suffered from competition with low-cost providers, a massive change in how hardware and software was sold, and a series of management miscues.

It fell to Whitman to evaluate the company’s current course, modify it as needed, and execute on those plans. Oh, and even after years of layoffs under former chief executives Carly Fiorina and Mark Hurd, more cuts were needed. Just after Whitman started, HP had 349,000 workers at a time when the profit margins on the company’s bread-and-butter PC, printer, and server businesses were under stress. As of the end of its fiscal year in October, 2014, the combined HP had 302,000 employees.

The company’s annual report published in December 2011, put it pretty well:

“…growing demand for an increasing array of mobile computing devices and the development of cloud-based solutions may reduce demand for some of our existing hardware products.”

Many in the technology industry would argue that Whitman took on one of the two hardest jobs in the business—the other being chief executive at IBM, whose revenue has declined for 16 straight quarters.

But in an interview with Fortune last week just before her fifth anniversary as chief executive, Whitman said she has no regrets.

“Things are always more challenging than you think they’ll be, but we provided some leadership stability,” she said. “Job one was engineering some trust and stability.”

The Problem

Hewlett Packard (HPQ), born in a Palo Alto, Calif. garage in 1939, is a Silicon Valley pioneer. In the 1940s and 1950s, William Hewlett and David Packard built the technologies and the engineering culture that came to define the rapidly growing computer industry. For decades the company helped dominate the technology industry and employed tens of thousands of people.

But the years after the deaths of HP’s founders in 2001 and 1996, respectively, were defined by large acquisitions (Compaq, Electronic Data Systems, Palm) that didn’t work out. In addition, there were what sports analysts would call “off-the-field” problems like a 2006 “pretexting” scandal in which HP hired private detectives to snoop on reporters in hopes of ferreting out corporate leakers. (That particular debacle cost Patricia Dunn, HP’s chairman at the time, her job.)

The arrival of SAP veteran Léo Apotheker, Whitman’s immediate predecessor, in 2011 seemed to mark a new chapter in the company’s history. Apotheker launched an aggressive plan to turn HP, for much of its history a company defined by hardware products, into a company focused on selling software to large corporations.

His decision to buy Autonomy, an enterprise software company based in England, for more than $10 billion to hasten that transition was perceived as wildly overpriced. (He also pondered spinning off HP’s well-known PC business.) Apotheker’s moves left HP’s employees, partners, customers, and investors concerned about the company’s strategy and future. And so, eleven months after he replaced ousted chief Mark Hurd, Apotheker was shown the door and Whitman, then a board member, was named chief executive—HP’s third in three years. (No wonder HP investors had heartburn.)

And so, Whitman took the corner office at a tumultuous time not only in the company’s history but in the technology industry at large. The lucrative enterprise divisions of tech’s biggest players including IBM, Dell, and EMC, were under tremendous pressure to move their products and services to a “cloud”-based model. The rise of Amazon (AMZN) Web Services had changed the way companies used and paid for technology. Why buy a fancy HP server for your company’s data center, technologists now asked, when you could just crunch your numbers on a rented server in an Amazon facility, for less?

The resulting model—dubbed the “public cloud”—represented an existential threat to any company selling hardware to large businesses. And HP, already distracted by its own internal issues, had to confront it. “The public cloud taught the industry about simplicity and ease of use and a new consumption model,” Whitman said. “It was both a technology and business model innovation.”

So Whitman mulled her five-year turnaround plan and got to work.

The Proposal

Whitman arrived in Palo Alto with a steady hand. (Some reporters privately referred to her as “the analyst whisperer” because she seemed to soothe jittery Wall Streeters on earnings calls.) She promised operational savvy thanks to her eBay days. She urged patience for her multi-year turnaround plan. And she acknowledged past missteps.

“We haven’t done anything stupid in the last four years,” she noted on a September 2015 analyst call, “and we don’t intend to do anything stupid in the future.” (These remarks came four years and one month after HP announced the Autonomy deal.) HP insiders still refer to August 18, 2011, the date that the Autonomy deal was announced, as a dark day in the company’s history.

Whitman did not immediately repudiate that deal when she took the reins. But by November 2012, she said Autonomy executives had misled HP about their business and called for a fraud investigation. At about that time, HP said it was taking an $8 billion write-off related to Autonomy.

It was a difficult dance, said one former HP executive. “I don’t blame her for not raising questions earlier—you can’t have management publicly disagreeing on strategy right out of the box,” he said. Still, Whitman was on the board that approved the Autonomy deal. This former exec nonetheless gives her high marks on her stewardship. “I’m not sure anyone could have done better.”

Whitman’s five years have been marked by repeated rounds of layoffs and reversed product decisions. HP first sought to double down on tablet computers, which were then considered the next great computing platform; it then quickly changed course.

Whitman began her tenure with a pledge to retain HP’s printer-and-PC business, which Apotheker wanted to jettison; three years later, responding to what she called an industry changing at “lightning speed,” she changed her mind. In November 2015, Hewlett Packard cut itself in half: HP Inc., led by Dion Weisler, would focus on printers and PCs while Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), led by Whitman, would pursue cloud computing, data center hardware, and software.

That bifurcation would make both companies more nimble, Whitman argued then and now. HP Inc.’s recent acquisition of Samsung’s printing business would never have happened with a combined company, she said. “We’d have never paid a billion dollars for that printing business,” she said. “But HPI paid a billion to consolidate the laser printing industry and that is genius for them.” (Whitman is chairman of HP Inc.’s board.)

Critics say the moves reveal a lack of direction; boosters say it’s pragmatism on Whitman’s part to change course when conditions themselves shift. Whatever the case, changes continue at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, or HPE. Last May the company executed a “spin merge” of its enterprise services business into CSC (CSC). Earlier this month it did the same thing with its software business, offloading most of its lineup—including Autonomy—to Micro Focus. The moves reduced HPE’s annual sales from $50 billion to $28 billion but give HPE shareholders 50% ownership in both CSC and Micro Focus. Meanwhile HPE shareholders will get a total of $4 billion in cash from the two deals.

“In every business, we will benefit from a smaller number of product offerings that we can invest in,” Whitman reportedly said at an analyst meeting in 2012. Or a smaller number of businesses altogether.

Whitman’s continued slimming of HPE has stoked talk that it could now be an attractive acquisition target for private equity companies that have been emboldened to spend big money on technology providers. (Apollo Global’s recently announced plan to take Rackspace private in a $4.3 billion deal is a recent example.)

The Results

Investors should be pleased with Whitman’s unraveling of the former Hewlett Packard. Last Thursday, shares of her Hewlett-Packard Enterprise hit a 52-week high of $23.53, up just over 62% from $14.49 per share when HPE started trading on Nov. 2, 2015. Meanwhile HP Inc. has been trading at around $15, up slightly over its $13.83 price on the day of the split.

Indeed, much of what Whitman has accomplished over the last five years involved reversing what her predecessors did—or unlocking value, as so many financial analysts call it. What remains to be seen is whether Whitman can turn HPE into a force of its own. As early as 2012 HP said it would take on Amazon directly with a public cloud of its own, but dropped those plans last year.

“On the one hand, Whitman inherited a huge mess—Autonomy, the services business, the software business,” said one longtime HP watcher who requested anonymity. But her cleanup of that situation hides HPE’s impotent cloud effort. “She stuck with a bad strategy and bad execution—private cloud and a small ‘bonsai’ public cloud—before pulling the plug,” he said.

Others say Whitman has managed a tough transition well. Dana Gardner, principal analyst with InterArbor Solutions, a research firm that also consults for HPE, said the company has weathered rough weather and come out the other side.

“Not only was this a challenging time for HP, but it was for the entire industry,” he said. “It’s hard to think of a period that’s been more disruptive to tech than the last five years.”

Perhaps—but in the meantime some of HPE’s competitors have gotten larger, not smaller. The merger of Dell and EMC resulting in Dell Technologies (with $74 billion in combined sales), Amazon’s continued cloud dominance, Microsoft’s resurgence, and Google’s increased investment in enterprise tech means Whitman’s outlook hasn’t gotten any easier.

Many people don’t expect Whitman to stick around much longer. With a new U.S. president around the corner, there is talk that her next step could be into a cabinet position—Secretary of Commerce? Treasury?—for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, should she win the election, leaving Whitman to declare victory at HPE and move on.

Asked about her plans beyond Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Whitman deflected. (After all, she did pick up some political tricks while running for California governor in 2010.) Her work at HPE is not done, she said. “I feel we’re making real progress but we have some planes to land,” she said. “We have to separate out enterprise services and software and make sure the remaining company strategy is robust.”

Whitman did not rule out “smaller” future acquisitions, pointing to HP’s acquisitions of 3Com, 3Par, and Aruba as examples of purchases that have paid off big in terms of expanding HP’s networking and storage businesses. (She expects the pending SGI acquisition to be equally as fruitful.)

In the meantime, running HPE is “way more fun” than it was five years ago, Whitman said.

“It was a lot of things five years ago,” she said, “but fun wasn’t one of them.”

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