HP Inc's UK boss on life after the split

How have the fifteen months since HP split into two businesses gone for the PC and printing company? We talked to George Brasher, managing director for the UK and Ireland.

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HP Inc's new Customer Welcome Centre in London.

Image: HP Inc/Jonny Back Photography

George Brasher is a 26-year HP veteran who has worked in a variety of roles in the company's printer and PC divisions over the years and is now HP Inc's managing director for the UK and Ireland. ZDNet caught up with him at the company's brand-new million-pound Customer Welcome Centre (CWC) in London, to discuss progress since HP's November 2015 bifurcation into printer and personal systems (HP Inc) and enterprise (HPE) businesses. We began by asking how the first fifteen 'post-split' months had gone.

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George Brasher, HP Inc's managing director for the UK and Ireland.

Image: HP Inc.

"If you go back to the genesis of the separation, what Meg [Whitman, CEO of HPE and chairwoman of HP Inc] said was that, by splitting into two businesses, we'd be able to have more focus -- and I think that's truly what's happened with HP Inc. What we wanted to get out of it was: could we be more focused on our markets; could we actually accelerate our pace of innovation and get closer to our customers? In general, I'd say the answer is a resounding 'yes'."

How has HP Inc achieved that?

"Looking at the strategic frame we originally announced, it's still the same, and companies with stable strategic frames have a good view of the business and are executing against that. The second thing is -- and you can see examples around this room [the CWC] -- we're a technology company, and innovation is our lifeblood: if you look at PC and print, we've seen more significant high-quality introductions in the last 15 months than in any previous 15-month period."

So, the product pipeline -- from R&D to market -- is more nimble and agile than ever?

"The proof is always in the pudding: I look at the Spectre x360, the Elite X3 and other devices -- and it's not just new devices, but also the quality of the new devices; being able to have a partnership with B&O and thinking about a new computing experience. On the print side, it's the same thing: in September we announced our single biggest rollout ever, with a set of 16 A3 multifunction devices starting in a couple of months and rolling out over the course of the year. I don't think that happens unless you have separation, because then you've got a management team and a board, and a group of employees, that are just laser-focused on driving against that."

There certainly has been a noticeable improvement in the industrial design of HP's business products in recent years...

"One of the 'mega-trends' across the industry is the 'consumerisation of IT', and you've got a group of people -- whether they're our age or millennials, who are a big driver -- where the boundary between work and life is not really that clear. In that case, you can't have a really cool, slick device at home and then something that's not cool and slick at work. If I look at our commercial devices, they look fantastic, they've got great user experience -- and of course they've got the enterprise-grade security that the IT director is going to require."

How has HP's partner network taken to the new regime?

"I was at our annual UK partner conference just this morning [21 Feb], and we talked about growing the 80 percent of our business that we do through the channel to 87 percent -- and when you compare that to a lot of our competitors, they'll be happy if they can get half their business through the channel. I think the channel has embraced the fact that, first, they're important; second, that we want to drive more business with them; and third, they love the products that we're bringing to market -- I've heard comments like "we've never had a better portfolio" multiple times during the last year. It's the combination of the capabilities that HP has as a technology company with the service and solution capabilities of our partners -- that's what delivers value for the customer."

Brasher also noted that, back in October 2016, HP Inc took the number-one spot for channel satisfaction according to the Canalys Vendor Benchmark, which collates channel partners' experiences of working with different vendors. "Normally global companies don't fare so well in this," he noted. "For me, that's a great endorsement of what we've done."

Strategy

HP's Q1 2017 financial results -- released the day after ZDNet's interview with Brasher -- reveal a company performing solidly in the highly competitive PC and printing markets. Although Brasher couldn't comment on the Q1 numbers at the time, we asked him to outline the company's strategy.

"We look at our TAM [Total Addressable Market] and think it's roughly $600 billion, and we break it up into core markets -- the core laptop and desktop markets, and the core A4 printing market. Then we have our growth vectors, which are graphics printing (packaging, signage, things like that), commercial mobility and A3 printing. Finally we talk about the future, which is immersive computing and 3D printing."

"If you look at the core business, it's clearly a mature business, but it still has opportunities -- Dion [Weisler, HP Inc's CEO] always talks about 'pockets of growth'. So you have to segment the market and look at where the growth is, and focus there. Convertibles and hybrids, and premium machines -- those are great growth opportunities for us. It's the same in the printing market. Take something like supplies purchasing, which is a low-involvement purchase that people do multiple times a year. We created a programme called Instant Ink, where we have the printer let us know when it gets low on ink and proactively send the ink to the customer so they don't run out at an inopportune time."

"You've got to innovate in the core space, but also go after new opportunities. In print, we're the market leaders in A4, but in the A3 market we're not the leader -- our share is going to be south of 5 percent -- and that's half the printing market. So from a growth perspective, we've got to win in both markets: we've got to continue to be strong in A4, but we've got to launch these new A3 products -- that'll start here in a couple of months -- and then have a robust portfolio. If we do that, we'll be able to drive growth in printing."

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HP Inc's Jet Fusion 3D 3200 Solution

Image: HP Inc

Another potential driver of growth in printing is 3D, although it's still early days (CEO Dion Weisler described Q1 2017 as "a milestone quarter with our first unit shipments [of Jet Fusion 3D printers] and revenue recognition"). So how does Brasher see this market shaping up?

"We've had lots of interest from customers, and it's one of the top topics I get from partners. To me '3D printing' is a misnomer -- really it's short-run additive manufacturing, a commercial-grade product. This is about going after the $12 trillion traditional manufacturing market, and how you disrupt that. There's three components to that: speed, quality and cost, and we've really focused on making sure we're disruptive across those. For the prototyping market, and for short-run production, it's a great application for the customer, and a great opportunity for HP."

Support for a range of 3D printing materials, beyond standard polymers, will be an important factor -- how is that developing?

"If you look at our 3D system, it's an open architecture, so we expect we'll be working with a lot of third-party companies to create materials for our platform."

Security

Security, particularly of IoT devices (including printers), is -- or should be -- an overarching concern for all device manufacturers. We asked Brasher to outline HP's key contributions in this area.

"I'm sure you saw the recent news that 150,000 printers were hacked -- luckily by someone who didn't have malicious intent. We're fortunate that HP's global security lab is based in Bristol, so I'm connected with the team down there. They follow all the trends that are happening in endpoint security, and the big thing they're seeing is, given how robust the software layer is, the bad guys are looking for the soft spots and are going for the BIOS level. So it's important to have robust BIOS security, because if you don't have that it becomes the weak link in the chain. One of the things we have, with both HP PCs and printers, is HP Sure Start. The way it works is, as the device launches, if there's any change to the BIOS, it jettisons that code and fetches a new gold copy. What's different from the competition is, the competition will still check the BIOS, but it's after it launches -- and by then, the malware may already be in. We try to close the barn door before the cow leaves, so to speak."

"We spend a lot of time on endpoint security," Brasher added, "and in fact, in the last year we've funded a chair in cyber security at the University of Birmingham so we can help work across public and private partnership to improve that."

Political developments

Let's talk about Brexit, and President Trump's seven-nation travel ban. What's the company's position on these political developments?

"Like everybody else, we're watching what's happening. We're part of industry groups like Tech UK and the CBI, and are working through them. Obviously the UK government will trigger Article 50 relatively soon, and we're interested in what the outcome is -- we're worried both for EU employees based in the UK, and for British nationals employed by HP in other European countries. HP has been in business for more than 75 years and our values are an important foundation: we've always been a company that's focused on diversity and inclusion, but we also want people, if they so choose, to have global experiences. Diverse perspectives make for better decisions and richer environments, and it's an important value for HP."

Outlook

Finally, how does Brasher see the rest of 2017 playing out, given the combination of competitive markets and an uncertain political and economic climate?

"I think you have to level up and look at the global environment we play in. Our revenues are $48 billion in a TAM that's $600 billion, so there's still plenty of upside for us to go after. Without getting into any one country or time period, if I look at our long-term prospects, I'm very confident. To me, the thing that separation does for us is, it creates a platform to grow, and we're investing in those areas where we see the growth."

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