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Carly the buffoon, meet Mark the wonder boy

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the rush to judgment on HP's current and former bosses don't do justice to either.

Next time Mark Hurd makes a public-speaking appearance, he might start by lifting that signature line from Lou Gehrig's farewell speech about being the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I'm not out to belittle Hurd or dismiss what he's accomplished. Besides, after yet another stellar quarter from Hewlett-Packard, I probably belong to an increasingly small minority when I say he's yet to prove himself.

No doubt that few on Wall Street believe HP's recent performance has anything to do with luck. They've adored Hurd ever since he revived NCR. He cut costs, turned money-losing divisions into profit makers, and more than doubled NCR's stock price. Disenchanted investors hoped Hurd could similarly reverse the serial disappointments that marked the Carly Fiorina era. Since moving to HP in early 2005, he's won rave reviews thanks to the 75 percent improvement in the company's stock.

Whether any other hard-charging female CEO taking a needed blowtorch to the joint would have fared better is anyone's guess.

And so the new mythology being spun is that HP's good fortunes are all due to Hurd's Herculean effort. If it were only that easy.

Unfortunately, the press has gone along for the ride. We've trotted out all the predictable cliches in our arsenal to explain the reasons for HP's brighter outlook. To wit: Fiorina was the glitz-addicted, globe-trotting megalomaniac who couldn't admit to her own shortcomings as an operations manager. In contrast, Hurd is the anti-Carly, the taciturn Midwesterner who shuns the limelight, a dogged, number-crunching, ubermanager who can squeeze money out of a stone. (Don't forget to say the last clause out loud in a deep, manly voice.)

The familiar list of particulars on Fiorina's rap sheet features a poor management style, an ill-considered acquisition and an indifference to HP's supposedly special corporate culture, a particularly nurturing environment for collaboration.

Fiorina clearly failed to manage HP's far-flung divisions. She needed a strong No. 2 to free her up to do the vision thing and glad-hand customers. Michael Dell has Kevin Rollins, Larry Ellison had Ray Lane and Scott McNealy had Ed Zander. HP did have a good candidate in the person of former Compaq CEO Michael Capellas, who stayed for a brief period after the merger transition. But he left to run MCI. That was HP's loss. The company took expenses out of its infrastructure post-Compaq, but not fast enough. Capellas was better than Fiorina at operations and would have made a big difference.

Postmerger missteps also cost HP its lead in the PC business. It was No. 1 in 2002 but has slipped to second place behind Dell.

But credit Fiorina for pushing a deal which, years later, is bearing fruit. Even though the results were slow in coming, Compaq brought along a lot of good technology. Even professional Carly bashers will acknowledge that without Compaq's PCs and servers on board, HP wouldn't be selling much these days except printers and Itanium servers.

Hurd's HP also benefited from a surging economy. It was Fiorina's bad fortune to be at the helm when the dot-com bubble burst and a recession chilled IT spending. Consumer and retail demand--two areas where HP is stronger than Dell--have since rebounded, but these are fickle markets. And if the commercial market revives and Dell returns to its normal growth rate, the momentum easily could shift the other way.

And how about that special corporate culture? Sorry, but the folks at HP mourning for the days of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard never gave Fiorina a fair shake. She was too brusque, too much of an outsider and--let's face it--just too brassy to suit their tastes. This was a company in need of a jolt. Whether any other hard-charging female CEO taking a needed blowtorch to the joint would have fared better is anyone's guess. And as for that oh-so wonderful collaborative environment, it didn't add up to very much. When it came to turning out exciting computer products, HP was a follower, not a leader--unless you want to count the number of do-nothing jobs that should have been eliminated years ago.

A new CEO and a new attention to detail have done wonders for HP in the last year. But a rush to judgment on HP current and former bosses fails to do justice to either. If Hurd is as modest as his handlers claim, he would be the first to recognize that HP's achievements owe a debt to his predecessor.