If HP's board calls, don't pick up the phone

commentary Dysfunction, thy name is Hewlett-Packard. CNET's Jim Kerstetter offers Meg Whitman some unsolicited advice if she is asked to run the company.

Dear Meg Whitman,

I hear you could be named the next chief executive of that big, whacky company known as Hewlett-Packard. I have some unsolicited advice about this:

Run!

I know it must be mighty tempting. After all, it's HP. It's the biggest computing company, at least in terms of revenue. (An Apple investor will gleefully point out who rules the market cap contest.) HP was one of the building blocks of Silicon Valley. "The HP Way" used to be a bible for how to run a big business. And the person who steadies the ship after a few years of nuttiness could go down as the West Coast version of IBM's Lou Gerstner.

Now I say this in all seriousness as someone who has admired your career at eBay and even your sometimes-chaotic foray into gubernatorial politics: you would be walking into a company that makes the California state government look sane.

Let's do a quick refresher course in HP dysfunction: A CEO was forced out because she couldn't get operations in order. A chairwoman was forced out because she had private investigators spying on employees and journalists (and we don't care for that). Then the next CEO got forced out because, wait, we still don't quite know what happened there, do we, other than it was seriously embarrassing? And then the latest guy, fresh from software company SAP, could be forced out because, well, we'll have to answer that one if and when it happens.

I saw a tweet from The Wall Street Journal this week asking readers if HP's board of directors is the worst ever. Forbes is calling the board "pathetic." And really, who can blame Forbes for calling it like it is.

The board took a pounding last month, of course, when HP announced it wanted to sell off its PC business and spend $10.3 billion to buy Autonomy, a software company few in the United States had heard of. That's the PC business, by the way, that HP doubled down on a decade ago when it bought Compaq. At this point, I'm completely confused about what they want to do with all that WebOS mobile technology they picked up not all that long ago in the Palm acquisition.

The point is--and I hate to be a harpy about the whole thing--these people really seem to be winging it.

Do you really want to be on this rollercoaster? You've got a strong legacy at eBay. Sure, that big Skype acquisition never made a whole lot of sense, and maybe you got out before eBay ran into some problems. But don't forget, you came in to run a little startup, guided it through some early technical problems, and helped turn it into a household name. That's a heck of a legacy.

Look, this hero in a white hat, riding in to rescue the big, screwed-up company thing is highly overrated. Just look at what happened to Carol Bartz at Yahoo. She went in there with a great reputation after a long run at the software company Autodesk. Then she got to Yahoo, couldn't straighten out the mess, got fired, let everyone know about it from her iPad, and is unfortunately better known now for her salty language than her strong career before Yahoo. That's not right.

Do you want to take that risk? Sure, your reputation already took a beating during the election, and your skin is probably thick enough to catch a Nolan Ryan fastball without a mitt. I know you can take it. But why take it?

You lost the gubernatorial race in California. Now fixing that giant state is Jerry Brown's problem. Maybe just a tiny part of you, while you're enjoying a pleasant evening not surrounded by angry prison union officials, is glad it's Brown's problem and not yours. Maybe not. But you have to admit he's got a crazy, hard job.

Why not let someone else deal with this crazy, hard job, too?

Sincerely,

Jim Kerstetter

 

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