A rejuvenated Compaq

Compaq Computer Corp., which 17 years ago saw the potential of the personal computing industry more clearly than most and rode that vision to become the undisputed PC market leader and a $30 billion multinational corporate giant, today finds itself struggling.

Compaq Computer Corp., which 17 years ago saw the potential of the personal computing industry more clearly than most and rode that vision to become the undisputed PC market leader and a $30 billion multinational corporate giant, today finds itself struggling.

There's no doubt the company has been in the doldrums. Even Compaq executives are quick to acknowledge that this has been a trying year for the Houston-based company. Following its mid-1998 acquisition of Digital Equipment Corp., Compaq struggled to integrate the two very different companies, seemed to stagger under the relentless marketing blitz of its Texas neighbor Dell Computer, seriously disappointed Wall Street with its financial results, and ousted its longtime chairman Eckhard Pfeiffer. As one top company official told us recently, Compaq had "hit the wall."

Trying to get a good read on the Compaq of today, a group of PC Magazine editors recently traveled to Houston for a sit-down with several dozen execs and product managers. My quick take: Despite a year's worth of traveling a hard road, the folks at Compaq are more energized today than we've seen them in many years.

During a similar PC Magazine trip a year earlier, we found no great vitality within the Compaq campus. Although it should have been a good time in the company's life—it was preparing to take over Digital and greatly expand its size and market potential—there was palpable uncertainty about Compaq's ability to succeed quickly in the enterprise markets it hoped to enter using Digital's resources. And there was open concern about Compaq's response to Dell's direct-marketing onslaught, which was quickly eroding Compaq's market share.

The concerns were well founded. One company official told us, "Instead of bringing PC economics to the enterprise, we brought enterprise economics to the PC world." The numbers don't lie. In April, Compaq reported a loss of almost $3 billion on revenues of $31.2 billion, compared with a gain of almost $2 billion on revenues of $24.6 billion a year earlier. Pfeiffer and several other top executives were gone soon thereafter.

So how to explain the confidence we found among the company leaders on our recent visit? Well, for one thing they believe they've survived the worst of their problems. And with some justification. For the second quarter, the company reported losses of only $184 million on revenues that grew 17 percent over the same quarter a year earlier. And International Data Corp. recently reported that Compaq retains its PC market-share leadership. The numbers are thin in the U.S., with Compaq providing 16.6 percent of the PCs shipped in the second quarter and Dell shipping 16.3 percent, but a bit more comfortable worldwide: 14.6 percent to Dell's 10.8 percent.

These market and financial numbers aren't great, but they're a decent place to start the rejuvenation process. The company also has a new CEO in Michael Capellas. Compaq has new strategies for the Internet and for meeting Dell's competition, it has a newly streamlined organization, and it has a range of new products. Will Compaq come back? Let me know what you think in the talkback below.

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