HP Matters, Leo Didn't

| About: HP Inc. (HPQ)

In the latest example of its incompetence, HP’s board of directors fired CEO Léo Apotheker, the same man it inexplicably hired less than a year ago after it fired its most financially successful CEO in a generation.

Into his place comes HP (NYSE:HPQ) board member (and former eBay CEO) Meg Whitman, who told All Things Digital:

I took this job, because HP really matters to Silicon Valley, to California, to this country and to the world. …This is an icon and the place where the initial spark to create Silicon Valley came from and I am resolved to restore it to its rightful place.

At one level I agree with and admire Whitman. My work as an HP subcontractor in the 1980s and 1990s paid for my house, and I have nothing but respect for the company’s historic role in creating Silicon Valley. Twenty years ago, HP was the best in several segments that mattered. However, the company has largely faded to irrelevance in the past decade: first in some declining businesses, and second, third or worse in growth businesses.

On the other hand, Whitman (seconded by chairman Ray Lane) is promoting the spin that Apotheker was axed because he was a bad communicator. He certainly was awful — more suited for a top-down command and control German bureaucracy (NB: SAP) than an innovative Silicon Valley pioneer. But there was nothing in the latest news to suggest that Whitman is going to repudiate the series of bad decisions promulgated by Apotheker.

In particular, the HP of Apotheker was exactly the opposite of that of Mark Hurd — which was completely consistent with the (controversial) vision of his predecessor Carly Fiorina. A $125 billion company with 300,000 employees can’t turn on a dime — or even as quickly as an aircraft carrier.

As the seventh CEO since 1999, I could easily see Whitman lurching HP into yet another direction with yet another strategy and yet another reorg and yet another grand acquisition and divestiture strategy. This is — and I have to say it — the woman who inexplicability spent $2.5b to buy Skype to complement her online flea market.

Thanks to generous union spending — and daunting party registration figures — Whitman (like Fiorina) failed in her effort to become an elected California official last fall. However, while her skill set is better suited to being appointed HP CEO than being elected governor, I’m not sure the former job is any easier. (I say this as California continues to imitate Greece-style deficit spending without the public employee cutbacks that the latter has reluctantly embraced.)

So running HP is not (as the AllthingsD interview suggests) about better communication skills, or meeting with executing on Apotheker’s inexplicable (and apparently irreversible) $10b acquisition of Autonomy, an obscure UK software company. Nor is it about building upon the unmatched legacy and once vaunted brand name.

It’s about deciding what HP’s unique competencies are, and how they are relevant to today’s highly commoditized, slow growth IT market. Even badly run, the State of California is guaranteed to exist for another 150 years, but the same cannot be said for a private company. Executing an IBM-style turnaround — rather than a Dell or DEC-style slide into oblivion — is longshot prospect for any executive.

Now that HP has a new CEO, it needs a new board. As I wrote a month ago, HP’s board consists of

Two insiders, three private equity investors, a failed startup technologist turned investor (Mark Andreessen), a former consumer products exec (Meg Whitman), execs of two failing telecom companies, the CEO of a successful software lock-in business, CEO of a major consulting company, chairman of a specialty chemicals business, and Larry Elison’s longtime sidekick (turned nemesis and Kleiner Perkins managing partner).

In many ways, it resembles the Apple board during the Jobs-free interregnum, where being on the board was the best job many of these people had ever enjoyed. Apparently others are finally joining Vitaliy Katsenelson of Seeking Alpha and me in noticing the board that can’t shoot straight — as this Reuters article Thursday:

Interviews with insiders, former executives and experts paint a picture of an ever-changing roster of board directors who lacked a good grasp of the company's fundamentals and vacillated over what its business should be.

Having a weak board has suited the goals of the last six HP CEOs, but shareholders have been cheated out of a fair return for their investment. If Whitman is really going to save HP, she needs to swap out the indecisive with actual competence. There should be others that share her (nominal) passion for saving this Silicon Valley legend, rather than just enjoying the sinecure. Let’s see if the institutional investors also push for a better board, or merely mark time for the opportune moment to dump their shares.

But in upgrading the board, Whitman and HP also need to confront a fundamental strategic question that the company has been avoiding for a decade: is it an enterprise company like IBM, or a consumer company like Apple? It has not been effective competing with either. Instead, it become the leader in low-margin consumer PCs — a business both IBM and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) eschewed and Apotheker said HP should dump.

So where will HP lead? I’m guessing it will try to get there by acquisition, but the next acquisition will have to be transformative, unlike 3Com, Palm, Autonomy — or for that matter, Skype.