Who's running HP? The media of course

Apotheker looks like a lame duck but does Meg Whitman really have what it takes to solve the problems at HP? I say no.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Day 2 of the Apotheker ouster drama at HP - which of course hasn't happened yet though it now seems a done deal unless Ray Lane can bang a few heads together in what seems now to be a futile attempt at restoring some measure of sanity.

But then the way sections of the media are spinning the yap coming out of HP HQ aka The Great Leaking Sieve and you'd be forgiven for thinking that Leo Apotheker has packed his bags, leaving the CEO's seat just warm enough for Meg Whitman to get comfortable before the media sets another fire off up the CEO's ass.

This drama is now taking on the feel of a tragi-comic opera, with the emphasis on tragedy.

Many in the media have known or had enough hints that all has not been well in the HP boardroom for a very long time, but the revelations in the New York Times are stunning. I said yesterday that the leaks had to be coming at board level and sure enough:

Interviews with several current and former directors and people close to them involved in the search that resulted in the hiring of Mr. Apotheker reveal a board that, while composed of many accomplished individuals, as a group was rife with animosities, suspicion, distrust, personal ambitions and jockeying for power that rendered it nearly dysfunctional.

What's even more amazing:

...when the search committee of four directors narrowed the candidates to three finalists, no one else on the board was willing to interview them. And when the committee finally chose Mr. Apotheker and again suggested that other directors meet him, no one did. Remarkably, when the 12-member board voted to name Mr. Apotheker as the successor to the recently ousted chief executive, Mark Hurd, most board members had never met Mr. Apotheker.

Explain to me how you hire someone for one of the most important jobs in Silicon Valley without meeting him? If ever there was cause for a class action based upon a board failure to exercise fiduciary responsibility then you have it right there.

Kara Swisher at AllThingsD is revelling in the drama. Crucially, she notes that Meg Whitman is pitching for the CEO's job for the long haul:

“Meg is not someone who wants to be a steward of a process to find another CEO for HP,” said one source. “She wants to run the company and be a strong leader for what she considers an important tech powerhouse.”

That makes sense, since at only 55 years old, sources said Whitman is not inclined to want to do a temporary fix-it job on a company as troubled and complex as HP.

That may make a lot of sense to Ms Swisher but it makes absolutely no sense to me. Here's why:

  • If you believe the board is complicit in the mess that HP appears to be in then what makes Ms Whitman think she is qualified to do the job? She has been part of the decision process the last eight months at a time while Apotheker is taking the heat. Is she not accountable?
  • Larry Dignan points out Ms Whitman's credentials for running HP. At first glance they make persuasive reading but they count for nothing in a turnaround situation. Whitman has only run businesses that were succeeding. That's easy. A different skill set is required when a company is in trouble. Ray Lane is the only board member with that type of experience but does not have the appetite for the job. (Expect his resignation any time soon.)
  • The Great Leaking Sieve problem. How does that go away? We hear Ms Whitman fancies a gentler, kinder HP. With this board?
  • Anyone noticing the silence from Redwood Shores - aka Oracle Towers? With impending chaos looking ever more likely, can Ms Whitman stand toe to toe with Larry Ellison and Mark Hurd? On Ellison's past form I'm betting on seeing pigs fly over my house very soon. Instead I'll watch for the next earnings call or Oracle Open World keynote. Ellison's joke writers must be on overdrive.

But let's look on the bright side. Ms Whitman knows a thing or two about auctions. Maybe she can find some buyers for the PC business and whatever's left of WebOS on eBay?

Close of play on the markets today is said to be the time we should all be looking for white smoke coming out of HP HQ and the anointment of a new CEO. The 8th since 1999. Let the drama continue.

In the meantime, the media seems to be doing something rather unusual - writing history before it's officially made. Now there's a novel idea.

Editorial standards